Summmer 1991, Vol.43 No. 2, pp. 119-133

Wayne Teasdale:
      Interreligious Dialogue Since Vatican II
     The Monastic Contemplative Dimension

Both eastern and western contemplative religious traditions
have much in common and are encouraged to address contemporary times
by signing and promulgating the "Universal Declaration on Non-Violence."

Wayne Teasdale received a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University and is a member of the North American Board for East-West Dialogue. He is the author of two books: Essays in Mysticism (Sunday Publications, 1985) and Towards A Christian Vedanta (Bangalore: Asian Trading, 1987). A member of Hundred Acres Monastery, he lives in New Hampshire.

ONE of the great discoveries of the twentieth century has been the insight of the essential interdependence of nations, cultures and groups. This interdependence is well-known in economics, politics and social life, but it exists even between and among the religions. The concrete experience of this interdependence is being advanced more and more in our time through various forms of contact, exchange, and exploration among the representatives of the various traditions. The church has taken the lead in opening up to the other systems of faith, encouraging regular and systematic relationships. The fruits of these encounters are becoming evident: a genuine respect for the moral, spiritual and psychological values present in each tradition, a search for common ground, and a sense of universal responsibility for the planet as a whole in-all of its dimensions of need. One result is a commitment to collaborate for the promotion of world peace and a new vision of society and humankind. The contemplative and monastic contribution to interreligious dialogue and the evolving sense of universal responsibility and collaboration has been significant. This article presents a brief historical account of the nature, content, and prospects of the intermonastic dialogical movement since the Council.


There were noteworthy early attempts at dialogue and inculturation in both China and India. The impressive work and assimilation of the Jesuit scholar Mateo Ricci in China cannot be overemphasized. Equally inspiring has been the example of the lesser-known Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656) in India. What he achieved still has an impact today.

De Nobili was an incomparable scholar of Indology and was actually the first non-Hindu ever to read the sacred texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.(l) Though a missionary, de Nobili entered very deeply into the life of Hinduism, winning the respect of the Brahmins and even taking the radical step of sannyasa. The term sannyasa means 'renunciation,' ultimately of the false self, and is the ideal of the Indian monk. De Nobili received permission from his superiors in 1607 to wear the kavi, the orange garb or habit of a sannyasi. He became in every sense a true sannyasi, fasting, meditating and abstaining from meat. He made a solemn vow to remain a sannyasi to the end of his life, a vow he kept (Cronin 70-71).

De Nobili could not only read and write Sanskrit and Tamil, he also composed original works in these languages that have become classics. Furthermore, according to Joseph Thekkedath, he developed a whole terminology for Indian Christian theology, creating a theological structure for teaching the Christian faith on the subcontinent (224). Although his original purpose was evangelization -- and this remained true throughout his life in India, even to his death -- he grew to respect and cherish this ideal, especially in it deepest truth, in its dimension of contemplative interiority and its serious commitment to inner transformation. In a sense, his life was a living dialogue, and he was certainly far ahead of his time.

The next significant figure to achieve notoriety was a young Brahmin convert to Catholicism named Brahmabandab Upadhyay (1861-1907), a brilliant metaphysician, journalist and one of the early leaders of the Indian independence struggle.(2) He was, in fact, the first to call for total independence from Britain. Upadhyay is an obscure figure because most of his writings were destroyed by the British, and his monthly, Sophia, of which he was the editor, was similarly suppressed. Also, the Hindu conservatives never forgave him for embracing Christianity and sought in every way to erase any memory of his contribution.

Upadhyay was initiated into sannyasa in 1894 and from that point onwards became an ardent advocate of inculturation or adaptation. Like de Nobili before him he wore the kavi, and in 1899 he established a Catholic ashram, his Kasthalic Matha or Catholic monastery. He worked tirelessly to formulate and communicate his vision of a synthesis between the Vedanta, which he viewed as purely a metaphysical doctrine comparable to Aristotelianism or Platonism, and Catholic theology, understanding the latter as having its source in revelation. He was also the first to suggest the use of the Sanskrit word Saccidananda, Hindu notion of the Godhead (or Sat = Being or existence; cit = Consciousness, and ananda = Bliss, the bliss of being totally aware or conscious of being) as a possible term for the Trinity, something that has now become fairly common in India. Unfortunately, the lack of support for his unusual experiment by the hierarchy led to its apparent failure. I say apparent because the germ of his vision bore fruit in the lives of Jules Monchanin, Abhishiktananda, Bede Griffiths and countless others.

Jules Monchanin (3) (1895-1957), a French priest who went to India in 1939, reawakened the ideal of Christian sannyasa with Abhishiktananda(4) or Henri Le Saux (1910-1973), another Frenchman, who came to India in 1948. Together they founded Saccidananda Ashram or Shantivanam on the banks of the sacred river Kauvery in Tamil Nadu, South India on March 21, 1950, the old feast of St. Benedict. Abhishiktananda was himself a Benedictine. These two pioneers completely adapted Benedictine monasticism to sannyasa, to the Indian ascetical tradition, creating in the process a new expression, i.e., Christian sannyasa, an expression that is thriving in our time, though it didn't appear very successful during the period of their experiment.

More than any other Christian, however, Abhishiktananda has gone the deepest into Hindu mysticism. He immersed himself totally in this tradition and assimilated its values; indeed, he became a mystic within this tradition. Still more, he became a pure advaitin in his mystical perceptions, though he went through years of agony and interior turmoil trying to integrate his advaitic experience with his equally profound Christian faith and contemplative experience. In his book, Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, he brilliantly describes this integrating journey. Abhishiktananda took dialogue to the ultimate level of the heart, the guha or "cave of the heart;" and there in the primal silence, found the point of unity between not simply Hinduism and Christianity, but among all authentic traditions of spiritual depth. He has to be regarded as a symbol of the living encounter between and among the world religions in the mystical depths.

Dom Bede Griffiths (b. 1906), an English Benedictine monk, moved to India in 1955, and founded Kurisumala Ashram with Father Francis Mahieu, a Belgian Cistercian, as an experiment in Christian monasticism in the Indian context. This was in 1958. He stayed in Kurisumala, located in Kerala state, for some ten years. Then in 1968, Abhishiktananda relinquished control of Shantivanam, retiring to a hermitage in the north, and Fr. Bede was sent to become the superior of the community that same year. Under Fr. Bede's leadership and inspiration, Shantivanam has known a remarkable growth. Fr. Bede himself has done much to advance the encounter and reconciliation of the Christian and Hindu faiths, most of his efforts coming after the Council. He has accomplished a great deal in the development of a solid tradition of Christian sannyasa in India and beyond. As a sannyasi himself and as a spiritual master he has initiated approximately forty persons into sannyasa.

Buddhism, insofar as intermonastic exchange is concerned, had little contact with Christianity before the Council, though there was significant exchange among scholars representing both faiths. After the promulgation of Nostra Aetate contacts have become steadily more common. Prior to the Council, Thomas Merton began his careful study of Taoism and Buddhism, particularly the Zen school. He spent ten years studying these traditions in depth and carrying on a long dialogue with D.T. Suzuki and other Buddhist masters. He was certainly ahead of his time in his own pilgrimage to the East. His encounter with the Dalai Lama after the Council in November 1968 has proven to be prophetic both for the church and monasticism, for it pointed the way to an important partner in dialogue, a dialogue which is now bearing fruit for both faiths and for all of humanity. Let us also recall that Merton died while engaged in an intermonastic conference in Bangkok.


Vatican II had an openness to and sensitivity towards diversity or pluralism, though its identity and focus were firmly Christian. In relation to the other religions, this openness and sensitivity resulted in the establishment of the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions on May 14, 1964 during the Council and prior to the promulgation of the counciliar decree Nostra Aetate on October 28, 1965. This secretariat (whose name was changed to the Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the reorganization of the Vatican government in 1989) has exerted enormous influence on the church's attitude towards the other world religions. Since its inception it has advanced the value of interreligious dialogue through publications, seminars, lectures, conferences and other dialogical situations all around the globe. It also facilitated and facilitates encounters between the pope and various other spiritual leaders representing the great world religions, a practice begun and encouraged during the pontificate of Paul VI who was himself an ardent supporter of interreligious communication. During the pontificate of John Paul II, the Council for Interreligious Dialogue has expanded.

The enduring inspiration of this openness and sensitivity is, of course, Nostra Aetate which is really a sort of charter for dialogue. In concrete historical terms Nostra Aetate may well be considered the most significant document of Vatican II because it has altered forever the church's attitude toward and relationship with the other religions. It has set the church and these traditions firmly on the path of mutual influence and enrichment. Religions are not static cultural entities but are actually dynamic organisms -- spiritual organisms -- and just like biological organisms they grow as well. The moment we enter into existential dialogue we also enter into the possibility of a deep influence on our own views, not to mention our very lives. This possibility works both ways. I am amazed, for instance, at how profoundly Tibetan Buddhists are affected by Christianity, how the educated ones have a genuine openness to the Gospel, an openness arising more out of their personal experience of certain representatives of Christ, rather than the often abstract pronouncements of scholarly exchange. The church has yet to realize the full implications of the statement in Nostra Aetate:

The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture. (NA 2)
Not only does this statement admit to the presence of truth in the other traditions, it also opens the door to the assimilation of these very values into the one universal tradition of the church which is always growing and acquiring new insights. For example, the Asian religions have numerous insights to contribute in the area of mystical and ascetical theology, which are never abstract, but relate to the difficult work of inner transformation, one of the chief goals of the spiritual life in any tradition. We must not forget that most of the spiritual journey concerns itself with the transformation of character and what we have come to call sanctity. The Asian religions possess vast resources on this issue of transformation.

Within the monastic community of the church, and with those monastics who are literate in these matters, there is a real appreciation of the moral, psychological and spiritual wisdom of Hinduism and Buddhism in particular. Monastics seem to be more consciously engaged on this level, something which is the fruit of contemplation itself and is contemplation or a part of it. The church, recognizing this in the monastic call, and realizing the contemplative nature of Asian faiths, asked Benedictines and Cistercians in Europe to accept responsibility for dialogue with Asian religions, that is, with their contemplative representatives. The Vatican Secretariat approached an already existing monastic organization that was operative for years giving aid to monasteries in the Third World.

This organization is called Aide-Inter-Monastères (or A.I.M.) and is based in Paris. A.I.M. established a subdivision D.I.M., or Dialog-Inter-Monast res, to implement the Vatican mandate and concentrate on dialogical activities. The Bangkok conference at which Merton died was organized under the aegis of A.I.M. In 1977, the North American Board for East-West Dialogue was founded to meet the same needs in the United States. It was originally a branch of A.I.M., but in recent years it has become more independent, making its own policy and taking its own initiatives. It draws on a rich experience in dialogue and the various resources of Asian religions in the United States and Canada. Through its publication, the Bulletins, it keeps its supporters informed about all relevant interreligious events and news as well and provides summaries of articles, reviews, interviews and ecclesial statements. All in all, the Board's work has been quite fruitful, and the bishops in the U.S. now obtain regular input from this organization that they have come to respect. The same is true of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue which closely follows the activities of the Board and often reports of its activities in its own publications.


The growth of the contemplative movement in Christianity, notably the insights of Fr. John Main and his method of Christian meditation as espoused by the Benedictine Priory of Montreal which he founded in 1977. The Centering Prayer form developed by the Cistercians Abbot Thomas Keating, William Mennenger and Basil Pennington has sensitized Christians to the spiritual and psychological values of the oriental traditions. Furthermore, the proliferation of Christian ashrams in India and elsewhere, like Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, South India, or Christa Prema Seva Ashram in Pune near Bombay has contributed a contemplative environment, inculturated to the Indian style. This has allowed for dialogue to unfold on the mystical plane.

When all is said and done, however, it is the experiential factor that is crucial or decisive. No amount of talk, no matter how wise, learned and eloquent, no amount of study can substitute for a life of contemplative depth. This is true because Christians, Hindus and Buddhists share a common value in the monastic/contemplative lifestyle and what it aims to actualize, i.e., mystical wisdom and spiritual transformation, into loving, compassionate beings. Dialogue on the monastic/contemplative level is useful, effective and profoundly beneficial in our current situation of world unrest.

Because monastics in each of the great traditions are or should be "professionals" in the search for the Divine, the Absolute, and because each of these faiths has a strong sense and experience of the Transcendent Reality, the Ineffable Truth, the Ultimate Mystery, and the way to it through the discipline of the spiritual journey, involving self-denial, contemplative prayer and service to others, dialogue in depth, genuine encounter or existential realization between and among them is really possible and happens quite frequently. One can even go so far as to say that this is the true nature of dialogue, that is, it has to find its roots in the ultimate concerns of the mystic. On the mystical level, the religions have much to share, whereas on the scholarly level, words can and do get in the way of this kind of deeper communication. It is important to be clear here: The academic type of dialogue is greatly needed, but it must defer to the mystical reality at the core of each tradition.

The North American Board for East-West Dialogue and A.I.M. have carried on an intermonastic hospitality program for some years now with Buddhists, and this has been very beneficial to both sides. A.I.M. has invited Japanese Zen Buddhist monks and nuns as well as Tibetan monastics to tour European monasteries for months at a time in different years. Similarly, the North American Board has invited the Tibetans for six months at a time on a few occasions. In each case they have spent a week or two in some of the larger monastic communities. Benedictine and Cistercian monks and nuns have spent equivalent amounts of time staying in the large Tibetan monasteries of India. This intermonastic hospitality program continues and is expanding. These contacts have profoundly deepened the existential dialogue between the church and Buddhism. The same degree of encounter should be pursued with Hindu sannyasis in the United States, though it has occurred to a large extent in India between Christian and Hindu monastics.


Twenty-five years after the Council we find that it is no longer a question of bilateral dialogue, that is, between the church and some other tradition, but rather of intra-religious dialogue, or encounter and communication among the various religious questions, i.e., the relation of the Divine to the human or the world, the Godhead and Nirvana, of Saccidananda to Trinity, of compassion to love, of Christ to the Bodhisattva, and of enlightenment to salvation, to mention a few, cannot, in my view, find resolution in the academy, but can only be defini- tively answered in the depths of mystical realization, that is, in the experiential process of the interior life or in contemplation itself. Nothing can take the place of sitting for an hour in the presence of a Buddhist, Hindu or Sufi master. If a Christian is also a master, that is, a contemplative, then the depth in him or her will easily relate to the similar depth in the Hindu, Buddhist or Sufi contemplative, or whatever tradition. Dialogue is a living matter, not a formal debate divorced from the spiritual practice of the partners. This is uniquely true of mystical religion, but it is not true of mathematics, physics or biology, for instance.

In terms of the intra-religious dialogue and the future of this whole movement, Abbot Thomas Keating and his organization, the Snowmass Conference, which is composed of fifteen religions represented by one person, offers the most promising vision of how the religious traditions can and should relate to one another in a more universal way. The Snowmass Conference has been meeting for nearly ten years, and the fifteen spiritual leaders have arrived at a consensus on what the principles of interreligious dialogue are. They call these principles the "Guidelines for Interreligious Understanding." Thomas Keating outlines these guidelines in Speaking of Silence:

  1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of the Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahman, the Absolute, God, Allah, (the) Great Spirit, the Transcendent.

  2. The Ultimate Reality surpasses any name or concept that can be given to It.

  3. The Ultimate Reality is the source (ground of being) of all existence.

  4. Faith is opening, surrendering, and responding to the Ultimate Reality. This relationship precedes every belief system.

  5. The potential for human wholeness -- or in other frames of reference, liberation, self-transcendence, enlightenment, salvation, transforming union, moksha, nirvana, fana -- is present in every human person.

  6. The Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships and service to others.

  7. The differences among belief systems should be presented as facts that distinguish them, not as points of superiority.

  8. In the light of the globalization of life and culture now in process, the personal and social ethical principles proposed by the world religions in the past need to be re-thought and re-expressed. (127-128)
One of the first things we notice in this list of principles is that all of them are the product of a universal sensitivity to each tradition, not the a priori assertion of any one in particular. Indeed, these guidelines were not imposed from outside, but were slowly discovered through the course of years of encounter in depth by spiritual masters in each of the traditions participating in the on-going deliberations of the Conference. Surely there is much to debate in the eight guidelines, but it seems to me that this particular group -- spiritually and psychologically mature through the years of hard work -- can serve as a model of harmony and wisdom in interreligious exchanges.


Interreligious dialogue has really two aspects: (1) the faith level and the revelatory experience that grounds it, something which in many cases is a form of mysticism, and (2) the practical level of the concerns we all have in common. I think it is critically important for the religions to relate to one another through their common responsibility to guide the world in the direction of transformation. Some possible projects to which the various religions might commitment themselves are:

  1. Intermonastic communities sharing life in depth. We have already had some indication of the benefits to be derived here.

  2. An International Council of Religions. The need for such an organization should be obvious, since the religions have to find a way to consult on a regular basis and to speak with one voice in world affairs, thus becoming a positive moral force and having a modifying influence on governments.

  3. The religions should move towards signing and promulgating the "Universal Declaration on Non-Violence." The "Universal Declaration on Non-Violence" was formulated and endorsed by the North American Board for East-West Dialogue, a monastic organization dedicated to interreligious understanding, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in October 1990. This could become part of the foundation of a new vision of global society and culture. The Universal Declaration could be an essential principle in promoting a worldwide or universal understanding of society and its relation to the natural environment. The ideals of non-violence and gentleness are indispensable to this possibility of a new civilization rooted in love and compassion, a civilization that places the ultimate emphasis on the values of spiritual transformation. The following is the actual text of the Declaration:
    This document is an attempt to set forth a vision of nonviolence within the context of an emerging global civilization in which all forms of violence, especially war, are totally unacceptable as means to settle disputes between and among nations, groups, and persons. This new vision of civilization is global in scope, universal in culture, and based on love and compassion, the highest moral and spiritual principles of the various historical religions. Its universal nature acknowledges the essential fact of modern life: the interdependence of nations, economies, cultures, and religious traditions.

    As members of religious groups throughout the world, we are increasingly aware of our responsibility to promote peace in our age and in the ages to come. Nevertheless, we recognize that in the history of the human family people of various religions, acting officially in the name of their respective traditions, have either initiated or collaborated in organized and systematic violence or war. These actions have at times been directed against other religious traditions, groups and nations, as well as within particular religious traditions. This pattern of behavior is totally inappropriate for spiritual persons and communities. Therefore, as members of world religions, we declare before the human family, that:

    Religion can no longer be an accomplice to war, to terrorism, or to any other forms of violence, organized or spontaneous, against any member of the human family. Because this family is one, global, and interrelated, our actions must be consistent with this identity. We recognize the right and duty of governments to defend the security of their people and to relieve those afflicted by exploitation and persecution. Nevertheless, we declare that religion must not permit itself to be used by any state, group, or organization for the purpose of supporting aggression for nationalistic gain. We have an obligation to promote a new vision of society, one in which war has no place in resolving disputes between and among states, organizations, and religions.

    In making this declaration, we the signatories commit ourselves to this new vision. We call upon all the members of our respective traditions to embrace this vision. We urge our members and all peoples to use every moral means to dissuade their governments from promoting war or terrorism. We strongly encourage the United Nations Organization to employ all available resources toward the development of peaceful methods of resolving conflicts among nations.

    Our declaration is meant to promote such a new global society, one in which non-violence is pre-eminent as a value in all human relations. We offer this vision of peace, mindful of the words of Pope Paul VI to the United Nations in November 1965: "No more war; war never again!"

    Since this was conceived as an on-going document, much like the "Universal Declaration on the Rights of Man" of the United Nations, it is not necessary to obtain the endorsement of all the religious traditions at the outset, though certainly that is desirable. It is assumed that as time goes on, religious bodies, groups and persons will want to sign it when they have achieved a certain awareness of its necessity and value. What the Declaration attempts to do is to draw attention to a fundamental element of a new global order, society and culture.

    It is crucial to keep in mind that this is not just another peace statement among others, nor a pacifist manifesto. Indeed, the document cannot be regarded or properly understood in isolation from its context: a new vision of civilization in which organized force is no longer tolerated. It is actually only if we can dream of such a world, such a vision for the generations yet to come, that it can and will become a reality, rather than just another failed utopian project.

    The interdependence of economies, cultures and religions, fortified by the technological advance of instantaneous communication, and the inherent dynamism of evolving societies as social organisms in the matrix of world history itself make this particular dream a genuine possibility, a possibility simply waiting to be actualized by our own collective and coordinated efforts.

    The Universal Declaration constitutes a creative leap into the future and is a conscious effort at civilization building. The Declaration tries to express what is one of the most authentic desires of us all: a permanent situation of global peace. This need, this longing of humankind, becomes all the more urgent in light of the horrific destruction and cost in human and ecological terms of the Persian Gulf War that has mercifully come to an end.

    Nor is this document the end of the process; it is really just the beginning because such a new global culture will not only be predicated on non-violence and so on peace, it will also have the values of love, compassion, kindness and sharing, at the center of its self-understanding -- a self-understanding giving expression to a more ultimate notion of justice grounded in charity and real concern. This new civilization, furthermore, would be firmly established on a profound sense of the sacredness of nature with all its wonderful diversity of life-forms, and a permanent, unwavering commitment to ecological justice.

  4. Finally, the religious traditions can lead the world to an acceptance of a universal responsibility for the planet in all its areas of need: peace, justice, human rights, animal and natural rights, ecological justice and wisdom, a more equal distribution of the earth's goods, a genuine respect for pluralism, and the essential need for transcendence or the development of our capacity for the Divine, which is actually a capacity for an all-inclusive love.

  1. For a good introductory work on his life, see Vincent Cronin's A Pearl to India: The Life of Roberto de Nobili (New York: Dutton, 1959).

  2. See B. Animananda, The Blade: The Life and Work of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (Calcutta: Roy and Son, 1945).

  3. For background on Monchanin's life and thought, see In Quest of the Absolute: The Life and Works of Jules Monchanin, ed. and trans. by J.G. Weber (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1977) and Jules Monchanin, Escrits Spirituels (Paris: Centurion, 1965).

  4. For Abhishiktananda's life see M.M. Davy, Swami Abhishiktananda: Le Passeur deux rives (Paris: Cerf, 1981) and James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through His Letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989).

  5. The Bulletin can be obtained free of charge by writing to: Bulletin, Osage Monastery, 18701 W. Monastery Rd, Sand Spring, OK 74063.


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Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. Amity, NY: Amity House, 1986.

_______ . Speaking of Silence: Christian and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way. Edited by Susan Walker. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987.

Le Saux Henri. Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience. Dehli: ISPCK, 1974.

Main, John. Word into Silence. Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.

_______ . Moment of Christ. London: DLT, 1985.

Thekkedath, Joseph. History of Christianity in India: From the Middle of the Sixteenth to the End of the Seventeenth Century (1542-1700). Vol. 2. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1982.