INTER-CONTEMPLATIVE DIALOGUE AND RESEARCH

In Montserrat, Spain, I met a Catholic monk who spent five years as a hermit meditating in the mountains behind the monastery. He told me that his main practice was meditating on love. When I looked into his eyes, there was some special feeling there. I admire and respect him greatly. His life shows that if we meditate for five years, some result will definitely come. Similarly, if we make daily effort to train our mind, the wild monkey of our mind will be subdued.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Approaching the Buddhist Path

What would a true contemplative renaissance require?

Throughout human history, great contemplatives have sought out solitude and silence in the course of their quest to realize and enter into communion with the truth, the ultimate nature of existence. They have been willing to undergo many hardships, intense self-discipline, and long periods when it might have seemed they were going nowhere, in order to learn how to dwell within the illumination and transcendent beauty of divine presence and grace-filled blessing.

Here at the Centers for Contemplative Research, when we speak of a contemplative renaissance, we are often simply asking a question: What would it take to bring about true revitalization within the great contemplative traditions of the world, working in harmonious collaboration with one another?

Following the most
demanding path

We believe that in order to bring new life to these awe-inspiring traditions, we ourselves must become contemplatives, according to the highest and most rigorous standards set forth by the great seekers of both the distant and recent past. We recognize that if we are to speak with any confidence about the heights of insight and depths of experience they realized, we had better do all we can to emulate what they practiced, with the rigor in which they practiced—without cutting corners or making excuses for our degenerate times or degraded societies.

What would it take to follow in the footsteps of Śāntideva or Śaṅkarācārya in India, of Milarepa or Düdjom Lingpa in Tibet, of St. Makarios of Egypt, of St. Theresa of Ávila in Spain, of Mansūr al-Hallāj or Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī in Persia? What does it take to realize experientially the most demanding ideals of a tradition, and have the courage to leave behind one’s ordinary sense of personal identity in the process?

Asking the hard questions

We ask the hard questions of interreligious dialogue, acknowledging what sometimes seem insurmountable differences in worldview and devotion, even in the articulation of the goals and ways to practice the contemplative life. But we also believe that the most meaningful answers to such questions can often come out of the dialogues that take place spontaneously among fully-committed followers of different contemplative paths—among those who are beginning to break through the boundaries of language and conceptuality even within their own faith commitment.

Certainly, the dialogue must be grounded in formal education and rigorous study of the tenets and teachings of one’s chosen tradition, but it truly soars when spiritual sisters and brothers dare to push the limits of their own understanding precisely by grappling with another person’s contemplative experiences, explained or reported in unfamiliar terms.

A gradually expanding conversation

We have begun our inter-contemplative dialogues where our own knowledge is strongest, in Buddhism and Christianity, but this is just a beginning. We look forward to watching the dialogues grow and develop organically in many directions, contemplative to contemplative, asking fundamental questions of one another as we continue to follow our chosen paths, whether Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Daoist, Hindu, Bönpo, or within any one of the visionary traditions of indigenous First Peoples around the world.

In principle, throughout our discussions, we emphasize the role of contemplative inquiry, since, over time, and in diverse cultural and religious contexts, it is such fearless, open-minded inquiry, pursued with a willingness to question unchallenged beliefs and assumptions, that has brought about genuine discoveries: regarding consciousness, its multiple dimensions, its role in nature, and the ultimate ground of being.

Contemplative discoveries

Some of these discoveries are unique to specific contemplative traditions, which may mean that they shed light on aspects of reality not revealed in other traditions; or it may mean that those discoveries are influenced by the specific tradition in which the contemplative has been trained. That is, they may be filtered by cultural conditions, as in the case of visions of deities who look like members of one’s own ethnic group and who are clothed according to well-known social norms.

Nonetheless, our hypothesis is that there is a whole range of discoveries that have been made by accomplished contemplatives educated in diverse, mutually incompatible belief systems and trained using diverse contemplative methods. Yet these discoveries about the nature and potentials of consciousness may be as universally true as the many discoveries about the physical world made by scientists who embrace the diverse worldviews of materialism, atheism, polytheism, monotheism, and nontheism.

If a discovery is true, it is true for everyone …

Therefore, the truths discovered through the historical use of rigorous “contemplative technologies” and “contemplative methods of inquiry” do not belong to any one religion or culture. Rather, we hypothesize that they must be invariants across diverse belief systems, even as they transcend them.

Contemplatives, such as Meister Eckhart, who have reported on their deepest insights—those which appear to diverge from acceptable religious language—sometimes draw the wrath of custodians of orthodoxy, who feel their own authority and that of their tradition is being challenged or undermined. This was also the fate of some of the great pioneering scientists, such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, and it is furthermore the fate of scientists today whose personal experiences and research findings challenge the status quo of scientific materialism, which is the orthodoxy of modern academia.

Discerning authentic vs. inauthentic discoveries

Through history, there have been, of course, alleged “discoveries” made by contemplatives that turn out to be artifacts of their own self-delusion or self-aggrandizement, which may be comparable to alleged scientific discoveries that turn out to be artifacts of faulty instruments of measurement, or conclusions based on fallacious information or interpretation of data. In this regard, such errors in contemplative inquiry have been repeatedly corrected by the further research of contemplatives who are more attracted to the purificatory and nurturing effects of authentic, self-effacing practice, than they are to the limelight of supposed claims of realization or discovery. So, ideally, each tradition corrects itself through returning to the practical instructions that have brought the fruits of virtue in the past, and not through leaping too quickly to accept every new claim of “discovery.”

Thus, our approach to inter-contemplative dialogue and research is both vast and specific, seeking the common ground that is reached through the rigorous and replicable experiences that arise from practice, not merely from a comparison of texts, rituals, or belief systems. We seek to overturn dogmatism in both religion and academia, and to arrive at the deepest truths of existence through radical empiricism—while never forsaking heart-opening faith in the honesty and integrity of the great teachers, saints, and prophets who have preceded us, pointing the way to what they have seen.

A Christian Orthodox Perspective

Christian Orthodox Hesychast Tradition speaks of the divine-human mysteries of Christ in terms of ‘no-confusion, no-division,’ refusing to reify uncreated unity or deifying difference. For this wisdom, the practice of harmonious collaboration is not to be confused with reductive fusion that suppresses difficult differences, driven by a fear of difference that is misconstrued as disintegrative division.

In practice, this wisdom, like other traditional wisdoms, supports harmonious collaboration because difficult differences are not watered down, but embraced as different witnesses to comprehensive completeness. Promising interconnections are not reified into systems of super-imposed metaphysical coherence, nor are painful contradictions strangled at birth. So what would it take for such collaboration to flourish?

Contemplative practice works with wisdoms that liberate confusion into wholesome communion and divisive separation into catalytic differentiation. This can appear demanding from a narrowly rational point of view, but is spontaneously integral within wisdom’s living transcendence of conceptual fixation. Wisdom lives with difference like a koan, like a completeness that is glorious but cannot be grasped conceptually, like an icon of harmonious co-inherence that is creative in surprising, wondrous ways.

Contemplative Renaissance does not conceal a subtle rivalry that serves cultural dominance of any kind, but infuses rebirth of wisdom in every tradition, renewing different wisdoms from within, discovering fresh openings in and through these differences. Contemplative practice welcomes this creative collaboration as a paradoxical expression of its vision of ineffable completeness, discovering ease in apparent difficulty, freedom in tight corners, glory in grave distress. Wisdom, freely shared without self-interest, is thereby handed on, enriched without reserve.

Father Silouan
Orthodox monk of Wisdom Hermitage
St. Davids, Wales, United Kingdom

Inter-Contemplative Dialogues Online

To begin your discovery, we invite you to listen to one of the following Inter-Contemplative Dialogues:

A Contemplative Path Through the Crisis: Inter-Contemplative Dialogues with Alan Wallace, Eva Natanya and Laurence Freeman. This event was held at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, 2020.

Dwelling in the Heart of Reality: Parallel Practices in Buddhist Dzogchen and Christian Mysticism. 
In this six-day virtual retreat, held 18–23 August 2020, Dr. B. Alan Wallace engaged in dialogue with Dr. Eva Natanya to explore the deep parallels in practice and theory that may be found in these two ancient contemplative traditions.