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Profiles in Buddhist-Christian dialogue with Roger Corless
In this series of profiles we are going to meet some of these inner explorers, hear their stories, and try to catch a glimpse of how they are bringing these spiritual practices into harmony within themselves.
Roger Corless is both personally and professionally committed to Buddhism and Christianity. Professionally, he has academic degrees in Theology (B.D., King's College, University of London, 1961) and Buddhist Studies (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1973). Personally, he has received baptism and confirmation as a Roman Catholic and is an Oblate of St. Benedict, and he has taken refuge in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He attempts to live as a participant-observer in both traditions and to speak and write out of that experience.
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My name is Roger Corless, and I was born in England in 1938 and have always had an extraordinary interest in looking for more than can be seen with the physical eye, and looking behind cultural presuppositions. I must have been a very difficult child for my mother because I would always ask "why" about everything, and she would eventually say, "Y is a crooked letter and you cannot straighten it."
I also asked her about God, and she said, "God sits in heaven and watches everything you do." And I thought this was a strange remark because if he was sitting in heaven he would have to be sitting on a chair on a shelf, and I would be able to go under the shelf and do things that God could not see. So I thought, well, either He does not see everything I do, or more logically, He doesnt sit in heaven, but he lies down and looks over the edge. So I went around for a week imagining this, and then I thought, "Well, I am only a little boy of 6 years old, and I havent done anything really important or interesting for the entire week, so logically either God isnt watching everything I do, or He is very bored. And I decided He wasnt watching everything I did and my mother was wrong, and that I had to find out what was going on for myself. And this has really been my motivation for as long as I can remember in this incarnation: that I have respected the views of authority figures but have never entirely believed them.
I think as a result of this I started to get interested in what is called science, and found myself being what is called a science major in what would be called high school over here, and then starting off my undergraduate career in veterinary science, and during that time it seemed to me that I was more interested in studying religion because religion was really doing what I found science was not doing. I wanted something that looked beyond, and answered the why of things. Science as I found it was not doing that. Science today I think is different, but this is now thinking in terms of 1940s, 1950s, and it was not doing that as far as I could see. So I moved away from that and started to study theology after I was assured that I did not have to be a vicar because I wasnt sure that I could be. I was not fully Christian at the time, and I thought the church of England is very open, but it wasnt as open as all that.
The result of that was that I ended up with a bachelor of divinity from the University of London which gave me academic credentials for studying Christianity, and subsequently I left and came to the United States to study Buddhism since I was not able to study Buddhism at that time in England things have also changed in England since then and entered the University of Wisconsin and got a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies, specializing in Pure Land, and that gave me the academic credentials to study that.
Parallel to all of this external searching was an internal searching which, as I said, was largely on my own. We were not a very religious family. Even if we had been, we wouldnt have gone to church too much because the Second World War was going on, and so one really didnt go anywhere if one didnt have to. One stayed at home and hoped that one wasnt bombed which, as you can see, I wasnt bombed. So my father, of course, was away at the war, and my mother and father had a cultural interest in religion, I would say, not very much more than that, and we would go to a Protestant church now and then, which was what led me to ask my mother about this entity called God which seemed to be so important, and then to receive an answer which I felt was not the right answer.
So it was largely on my own that I started looking at this, and I took out all the books that I could on different religions from local public lending libraries I think there were about 4 I took all of those, real all of those. Then I saved up my pocket money and sent off to Penguin Books to buy all they had since we had no bookshop in our village in England. All the books they had on the different religions were a survey and a translation of the major texts which at that time I was convinced there were such things as sacred texts. I did such things like read the Confucian Analects all the way through. A very bad idea, which I dont recommend, but I had no one to tell me not to do that. I also read a book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys, which I feel is more a book on the theosophists understanding of Buddhism than it is a book on Buddhism, so it is not a book I put on the recommended list for students.
When I read certain of these texts I felt a heart connection, or a sense of recognition, or re-cognition first of all, books on Islam with Sufism and I have never felt comfortable with the distinctions sometimes made between Sufism and Islam. I simply saw Sufism as what Prof. Shemail has called the mystical element in Islam, and then I read the Bhagavad-Gita, and that seemed to be, I was remembering more, even closer, and then I read a book on Buddhism, and I felt this is something I really can remember, so I then announced to my mother, "I have become a Buddhist." I was 16 then, and she said, "Thats nice, dear. Have you finished your homework?" So the I played around with the notion of being Buddhist. I didnt know what that actually meant, at the same time I was attending church because I was in the choir at a local parish. And then as I was in the University of London studying theology, Christianity started to come alive for me in a new way. I had more or less let it drift or lie fallow because I was more and more thinking of myself as a Buddhist, though I had no idea really what that meant. I had read a book on Buddhism and felt I was a Buddhist, and I was remembering from a previous life. Thats all I can say.
When I was introduced to the Christian tradition, not through hearsay and translations, but with wrestling with the Hebrew and Greek texts, and through attending the Eucharist in the Anglican tradition, and feeling that there was some power there that I could not explain from my Buddhism, I decided I was being somehow called to investigate this. I still felt like I was a sort of scientist and I still think that I have a kind of scientific approach to all this, and I said, "Here I must investigate. There is something powerful here which I cannot explain, and it wants me to commit myself to it," which I then did, and then I found when I committed myself to it, whatever it was, which I read about in the Bible, and felt in the Eucharist, that it came alive. So I said I suppose this is what Christians call God, so I suppose Im a Christian again now.
But my interest in Buddhism did not disappear, and for a long time I used to use elements of Buddhist tradition to keep the Christianity alive, especially in regard to the temptation to idolatry because in the Christian tradition we talk so much in personal terms of God, we forget that there is a major mystical and theological tradition of talking of God in impersonal or transpersonal terms, and I think very often we are too simplistic by concentrating only on the personal, and we feel that the impersonal or apophatic tradition is something we cannot get into. However, in Buddhism it is clear that we cannot stick with images and with concepts, so by my study of Buddhism I was constantly being stimulated to question the image of God that I had and was being stimulated to read and reflect upon the apophatic mystics, or mystics of dark. And for a long time all that Buddhism was was this assistance in my becoming what I hoped was a better Christianity. But slowly the tension got more acute, and I had to admit that I was, in fact, equally convinced by the Buddhist teachings of interdependence arising in which perspective there is no room for God, the notion of a Creator-God is unintelligible, and I was equally convinced by the Christian teaching on the necessity of God, and so I was put in a dilemma that at the same time I was believing in the necessity of God and the necessity of no God, the irrelevance of God, and this actually gave me a real existential problem and I even tried psychotherapy to resolve it because it really tore me apart. But the psychotherapist was not able to understand the problem so I realized it was something else, and one time I just got very depressed and then allowed myself to drop into this dilemma, and somehow dropped out through the bottom of it is the only way I can explain it, and I realized that it was not a problem.
I explain it in terms of saying it is a koan, but that is maybe to bring an alien structure to it. It was my experience that these two world views that seemed to me to be incompatible were my experience. This is what it seemed to me to be true, and that it was not up to me to decide between them. I put the problem to myself, "Are you Christian or Buddhist?" and felt that I had to choose between these, and it occurred to me that actually the problem is not which do I choose, but why do I concentrate on an "I" that must make the choosing? When the "I" that doesnt make the choosing disappears, then the process simply goes on, and with that the existential problem disappeared, and I was able to feel comfortable in both of the traditions, and it so happened that was just before our first conference on Buddhism and Christianity in Hawaii in 1980, and I then decided to write a paper to try to justify this intellectually, which is the time I came up with the notion of co-inherence that one could think of Buddhism and Christianity relating to each other on the model of the divinity and humanity relating to each other in Christianity that is to say, according to the Council of Nicea Christ is entirely God and entirely human without mixing, blending, being stuck together, or one being superior to the other, and thats not logical, but it is the way that God does things. And according to Buddhism, just especially to Mahayana, samsara and nirvana are said to be co-determinists, or co-inherent. They are said to enter each other, mutually enter.
So it appears that both traditions have the logical structure of co-inherence. I then proposed that there might be a level of consciousness which I suppose would be the level of consciousness for God, or for the Buddhas in which this reality between two incompatible world views was not the case, but not that the reality was resolved in terms of a higher truth, not in terms of a resolution at all, but in terms of the full mutual presence of both traditions. I have no idea what this means, but it seems to me that that is the only way that an answer can be found, working with that, so I proposed that in my paper which has become my position paper at the 1980 conference, "The Mutual Fulfillment of Buddhism and Christianity in Co-Inherent Superconsciousness." Even since then Ive been working, trying to work out, what this means. I identified with the Buddhist continuum while remaining a baptized Christian, and a person who converted to the Roman Catholic church, and at some point became an oblate of St. Benedict. I then tried to practice Buddhist and Christian meditation systems on alternate days, and on Saturday which is the odd day out attempting to practice a meditation system I call co-inherent practice in which I merely allow Christianity and Buddhism to exist together without trying to second guess where they might go.
And this has become what I propose as a spirituality for those of us who are concerned at the personal and academic levels for this Christian dialogue, that if we are called to it, and I dont recommend anyone to do this, I recumbent people to decide whether they are called to be Christian or Buddhist.
If they feel they cannot choose, well then, I think they are called to the co-inherence path, and the co-inherence path, however, is what I call the path of the way of no expectations. If one is Christian, one is supposedly proceeding to the beatific vision, and if one is Buddhist, one is proceeding to total liberation of ones self and all other beings. The co-inherent practitioner must give up any notions of going anywhere. The Christian ideal and the Buddhist ideal of putting others before the self must be reinterpreted so that the other which is put first are the Buddhist and Christian traditions, and the self who goes anywhere, whether liberated or saved, is not an issue. And it is in this confusion that I now sit.
This confusion is a creative confusion somewhat on the model of Taoism where confusion or chaos is regarded as a positive state from which new things can arise, a state we are often afraid of, I thin, in the West. We want everything ordered, and I certainly was brought up to be ordered, but I am trying to lose control, of letting things happen as they will. What I try to do is the Christian meditation and the Buddhist meditation. For the Christian medication it has a distinctly Benedictine flavor, that is to say, it is centered on the Mass and the divine office. As an Oblate of St. Benedictine I am asked to chant at least a part of the divine office, and I do something of this, some chanting of Psalms and readings of the Bible in the sense of the lectio divina, rather than a formless sort of sitting, and when that Christian prayer or contemplation is working as it should, and we all have dry periods which are really part of the point, if I dont get bored I dont think I am practicing well, then I start to feel that I am a part of the communion of saints, praying in God, that the Benedictine understanding of the Christian tradition is that the prayer is done by the second person of the Trinity to the first person in the power of the third person, and the human is participating in this.
We dont really start to sing the divine office. We enter into the divine office which is already going on. In this consciousness only God and the consequences of there being a triune God comes to consciousness, and the Buddhist tradition is not an issue, it is not there.
When doing Buddhist meditation I also use a meditation with form. I am uncomfortable with doing a meditation without form such as sitting in the Zen tradition because I found that if I did silent sitting it wouldnt be silent, but I would find the Jesus prayer would start to come up, or I would find myself doing Christian contemplation, and I was not doing Buddhist meditation, so this was the reason why I took refuge in the Tibetan tradition, and especially in the Gelumpa tradition, which is one of the more intellectual and more image-full forms of Buddhist. So when I am doing a meditation which would be largely a liturgy and visualization, it is not really possible to experience the Christian universe at that time if one is visualizing large congregations of buddhas and bodhisattvas and differently colored ladies and gentlemen of high attainment improbably perched upon lotuses coming out of a milky sea. Theres no space left in the mind to consider the triune God. Therefore I feel I am in the Buddhist universe of interdependence arising, and in the brilliance of the manifestation of the dominator, the vajradatu.
In my daily life I try to be as ethical as I can, and it turns out Christianity and Buddhism are largely similar in their ethical precepts. It is one of the advantages of taking Christianity and Buddhism as ones twin traditions or having been taken by them, I would say Im not sure I chose them that the ethical systems are similar and they concentrate on use of the mind, the intention. If one were to take something like orthodox Judaism and orthodox Hinduism, it would be more difficult, and I leave others to speak about that, but it seems one would have a difficulty in knowing what to eat in that situation.
In Buddhism there is not that problem. So I try, then, to practice Buddhist and Christian meditation on alternate days. . I start on Sunday being the Christian day, and that means that Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday are Christian days, and then Monday, Wednesday and Friday are Buddhist days because in Buddhism there is no one day a week that is a special day. . This leaves Saturday which is the time of confusion, or co-inherence. I try to practice meditation that I am still developing in which I invoke the presence, or realize myself to be in the presence of the triune God, and the Triple Jewel. I invoke them first separately, and then I invoke them both together, and then allow them to meet, and then to sit in my heart, or my consciousness. It seems to be that I think of it as the heart which we tend to assume is the middle of the chest, which is the way I can feel it the best, and then allow that to sit there, and then eventually allow it to dissolve, and I go my way. The next step will be reporting on what happens when these two traditions meet, and at this point I dont know what that will be. I am at the level of thinking that I have been doing this long enough and maybe I should get on the road and do something about it, but I must not force the issue. Im finding a strong resonance I think thats the best term I can use at the moment that Christianity and Buddhist, though doctrinally, as I think, incompatible or irrelevant with each other, have a strong resonance, and I believe that it is this resonance that is being felt by the monastics who are involved in the interchange, that although when they meet, Buddhist and Christian monastics have some surprise, I think of what the other believes doctrinally, they still will feel that they are good monks and they keep their vows they are sort of doing what we are doing so something is happening that is important. I am not ready to make any doctrinal statements as to how Buddhism and Christianity relate in this way, but maybe as the resonance increases, then something will manifest, that I will be able to speak about, and at any rate it is still possible to talk of how Christianity and Buddhism can be helpful to each other by experiencing the other tradition, most obviously Christians who practice or study Buddhism can be stimulated to look into the mystical tradition of Christianity which has been largely neglected except by specialists, and also especially to look into the apophatic tradition, or the tradition of the mystical dark.
Buddhists, on the other hand, can be stimulated by the social activism of Christians. I have talked to a number of Buddhists who have said we realize that we speak a lot about compassion for all beings, but we tend to interpret it on an individual level, or we visualize being good to all living beings, but we dont really get out there and try to change society, so it seems to me that Buddhists have been stimulated to look at their own tradition in a new way because of contact with Christianity, so I see the first fruits of the dialogue being on this very practical level, and the doctrinal fruits at this point I dont know what they would be.
So the practice that I do is intended to be, as far as possible, a dual practice of the Buddhist tradition in an authentically Buddhist way, and the Christian tradition in an authentically Christian way, the Buddhist tradition being seen in the context of not only the meditation which is meditation with form, so it is distinctively and obviously Buddhist, but the study of the doctrine and the ethical practice, and Christianity in a similar way, the meditation which is with form, not simply a kind of Trappist formless meditation which comes after the divine office, but a more Benedictine contemplation that is the same as the recitation of the divine office, and that is also seen in the context of the doctrine and the ethical practice. Only if I do that do I feel that I will be able to be a focus for the Buddhist-Christian tradition meeting in fullness.
If I were to practice one of the traditions, such as Christianity, with form and the other one, which is Buddhism, without form, I dont think that I would be able to be this focused, and I would like to emphasize that I dont regard myself as a Buddhist hyphen Christian, or even as a Buddhist and a Christian, but I regard myself as an entity that is able to function authentically in both Buddhist and Christianity, and what other people call me is up to them. I try not to call myself anything, but I leave it up to them to call me something.
If we are in the presence of a Buddhist and a Christian two different people each of them as far as we can tell intelligent, learned, and virtuous as far as we can be virtuous, we may not feel a problem. Well, it is just two different things, two different approaches. But it is a problem because we cannot, if these people are really intelligent, and so forth, we cannot really decide that one of them is better than the other and so we are presented with a problem which is that humanity can take these two different roads, and in fact others, too such as Hinduism and Taoist or Judaism, or whatever. It is only when we see it in one person that we get a shock value, and all that is happening in my case is that in one piece of hardware are two pieces of software so that there are two entities practicing in one entity.
Some people, especially Christians, especially Catholics, seem to be practicing what they call Zen, and they seem to regard this as a method of engaging in dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity, and I have grave reservations about the effectiveness of this, and I think it might even confuse the issue, and even set back the cause of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue because although these people are normally, as far as I can tell, authentically practicing in the Roman Catholic tradition, when they come to the Buddhist tradition they appear to be practicing only sitting in lotus pose on a zafu and giving up words and concepts. They do not appear to be attempting to enter into the Buddhist universe in which there is no God, in which the Christian God is not relevant. They will then report some kind of potential or experience which they may say is an experience which allows them to be Christian and Buddhist at the same time. But it is not clear to me that they have moved away from the Christian tradition, or if they have moved from the Christian tradition, it seems to me that they might have moved into a position of transcendental monism which is not obviously dissimilar from Vedanta Hinduism in which they are experiencing the Brahman, or life force, without any qualities, and if this is the case, then they are actually debasing the Buddhist and Christian world views they claim to be assisting, and they are saying in fact there is a view that is better than Buddhism or Christianity, especially at the doctrinal institutional level that is a transcendental spiritual realm which is purer, and I, this person might say, have come to tell you about this.
I am quite unhappy with that position, and I would ask such people to investigate how they might be either fully Christians who are practicing elements of Buddhism to purify or assist their Christianity, or could be Christians who are also practicing Buddhism in a Buddhist context. I think that it is important that the Buddhist-Christian dialogue not be restricted to doctrinal and academic questions. When we began this Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, the way I remember it as one of the co-founders, is that I made a strong plea that this Society should not be left to the professors who would simply have meetings in which they would talk. However, it has large become that in its yearly meetings that are held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion simply because professors with tenure have a lot of time on their hands that they can use as they wish, and so they are the ones who can leave their jobs and spend a week or so at a nice place talking when ordinary people who have jobs cant to that. It is only at the major meetings, the international meetings which happen every 4 years that we can have a way to redress that balance, and this particular meeting in Chicago in 1996 I think has done better than the others for the practice element largely because the committee on practice which I chair, and which I believe I remember I helped to form, we tried to say that practice should not only be something in the morning and the evening sort of like an hors doeuvre and a dessert which you can take as you wish but there should also be a main course, and we were able to do this last night by having one of the plenary sessions devoted to practice. It went on overtime which I think is a very good thing to do because it allowed us to experience the boredom which is an essential part of really getting true practice, but it is a way of giving up the ego and saying, "Well, Im practicing anyhow. Im bored, but thats not the issue."
Also this conference has made a definite attempt to address the social and ethical issues which are perhaps the most immediate result of an effective Buddhist-Christian encounter or cooperation. His Holiness, Dalai Lama, has emphasized time and again that the meeting between religions should be for the elevation of consciousness, and for world peace, and for the betterment of the position of the very large percentage of the human race who are disadvantaged, and also for the betterment of the status of the non-human beings that in the Christian tradition we tend to ignore, but in the Buddhist tradition we cannot ignore.
I think I would conclude by asking anybody who feels called to the Buddhist-Christian dialogue to find out first by following their heart, following their intuition, whether or not they are comfortable or are called to be primarily Christian or primarily Buddhist, and therefore interacting in a subsidiary way with the other tradition, or whether they are called to be a person of dual practice such as I believe I, myself, have been called to be, and then whatever they do they do it with intensity, that this is the pearl of great price for which we are prepared to sell everything, and whether it is our Christian tradition or our Buddhist tradition, or our dual practice, we realize that we are their servants. We are not the ones who direct, but we interact with these two ancient traditions. If we do this with awareness and with kindness, then something will happen which will surprise us all.
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A Complete List of Books, DVDs and CDs