TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH FATHER THOMAS KEATING, SNOWMASS MONASTERY, COLORADO, USA
An interview by Stephan Martineau and Miriam Mason Martineau (early spring of 2003).
Father Thomas Keating is a Cistercian monk and priest of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. He is the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement and of Contemplative Outreach, a program of formation and support in contemplative living and prayer. He is also author of several books, including Open Mind, Open Heart and The Mystery of Christ.We came away from the interview with the feeling of having been in the presence of a truly wise person, a rare treat in this day and age. Father Thomas Keating is a warm generous human being — a delight to meet and converse with. Enjoy!
This interview begins after placing (upon Father Thomas Keating’s request) our inquiry in the context of our 10 years of experience living at Morning Star Community (1992-2002) in British Columbia, Canada, and a short description of what the focus, vision, direction and insights were during this time.
Q: To begin with, what is your sense of the state of the world and where we are going as a human family? Do you feel a sense of hope? Of despair?
TK: This requires a rather nuanced answer. I feel that we could be in for some serious disasters of some kind, such as economic, ecological, technological events. The future from that perspective does not look promising. Today technology is way ahead of human moral development.
If you are a Christian I think you have to be hopeful. What is going on may be part of a broader plan that goes beyond our immediate perception. We have been put in a place in history that we didn‘t choose. We are part of a massive shift of cultural and social attitudes. If you believe in the evolution of consciousness, there have been major shifts over time since we came down from the trees. The Perennial philosophy shows that human possibilities have not gone very far as yet, which makes our present period rather critical. Higher states of consciousness are available for individuals. Whether they can be made available to the human family as a whole is unknown. As a human family we seem to be quite rooted in sub-human attitudes. We are supposed to be rational, but not too many people are. Without a spiritual practice and a community to support it, the further transformation of consciousness is very unlikely.
Yes, there is hope, but it may require enormous catastrophes to shake people out of their false self systems.
I feel it is happening – 9/11 was a kind of prophetic event. If we are members of the mystical body of Christ, as Paul teaches, the same divine DNA is present in all the cells, we have within us the program for transformation; it just hasn‘t been activated.
Q: By becoming aware of this shared DNA, could it be pointing to a possibility of something existing beyond our individual realities, something that is present in the space between us as individuals and that could allow for what is greater than the sum total of the individuals gathered to emerge?
TK: Christopher Bache talks about this as a sense of higher mind, which creates a magnetic attraction to others; it plugs us into some kind of corporate mind that is not God, but a developing kind of human consciousness that furthers the development of the individual. David Hawkins points out that one person who has reached a state of consciousness of 1000 (on a scale of 1 to 1000) would transform all of humanity. He says that Christ is one of the few persons that did just that. Someone at 600 could affect millions of people positively; the human average according to him is presently at 207.
Q: Given that, according to Hawkins, the human average is at 207, what do you feel might be the next step for those individuals who are poised at the present leading edge in consciousness and who could, through their efforts at transformation, help move the human family closer to 600?
TK: Ken Wilber calls it „vision logic“. Wilber himself feels that less than 1% of the population is there. But a factor that is shifting is the number of people interested in the spiritual life. So there is a much larger reservoir. I am always astonished at the interest in spirituality. When we do centering prayer workshops 400-500 people show up, not 20-30. It‘s just scratching the surface of course, but people are seeking. Christians who are looking for something that is contemplative have responded in great numbers. When I was younger, one never heard of it. The renewal of the Christian contemplative tradition is now becoming acceptable in mainstream circles, which is amazing in itself. It used to be looked upon with a lot of skepticism and suspicion.
Q: Something we have looked into a lot over the last 10 years of living in a spiritual community and also during this year as we travel, researching what the next step is in the evolution of human consciousness is, is what becomes possible when, as Christ said, “two or three are gathered in my name”. We have a growing sense that this may be pointing to the next great shift in consciousness. To use David Hawkin‘s scale, what would it look like if say 7 people at 400 were to come together? What could be the transformative power of such a gathering of individuals?
TK: I don‘t think David Hawkins addresses that issue directly. But the ground is shifting under our feet; movements are going on that we don‘t necessarily see right away. Compared to earlier times, things are moving very fast. What you have to do to transform is not as intense or as hard to get as we originally thought. Not as unavailable for people living in the world as was thought just in the last century. Now we know that you can actually do it in the world. I do think if you could get 5-10 people together you would have a lot of energy. They would be getting closer to that original source, getting closer to higher states of consciousness. My conviction is that the purpose of the universe is the transformation of the whole human family. Whether this is happening now I don‘t know. It usually takes a conversion experience; without that, no transformation. It is like saying that our old patterns for happiness (materialism, consumerism etc.) need to be changed. We wouldn‘t need a catastrophe if people would start doing a practice. It doesn‘t seem to be enough to join a religious body, etc. There has to be a practice.
Q: There seems to be a growing number of individuals who are committed to a sincere spiritual practice. At the same time, many people realize through experience that being supported and encouraged or even challenged by others can make the journey much more inspiring, also more fierce and fruitful. For this however to be fully effective, a community would have to be able to discern between the false self and the true self. Do you think this is possible?
TK: It would be nice to get a group to commit themselves to transformation. It would have to be pluralistic to allow for differences, but the tools, the means seem to be there. But there is a lot of cultural stuff even in the most dedicated people, because it is unconscious. You would need a community that is willing to be confronted on their corporate and private possessiveness. Jesus‘ wisdom sayings need to be reinterpreted: „If you try to save your life you will bring yourself to ruin; if you bring yourself to nothing, you will find out who you are.“
No-thing means no possessive attitude, role, even spiritual role. The eye of a needle is a symbol of that – you won‘t get through it unless you reduce yourself to energy. There is no future for the false self. How do you convince people about this? A lot of people are initially excited about this possibility, but then the huge impact of the negative social influences is like a dead weight. Unless you have a strong community with people who know what they are doing, you slip back. The false self is the only self we know. It is painful to face the conscious and then the unconscious attachments we have to false self activities and motivation. That is the great problem.
Q: Our research has shown us that if those individuals who are at the leading edge in consciousness evolution do not move forward, they become co-responsible for the stagnation that is at present predominant across the western world and that is largely contributing to the precarious state we find ourselves in as a human family. In other words, they are holding up the direction, the flow of evolution and thus also “pulling the brakes” on possible movement further upstream. What are your thoughts on this?
TK: The leading edge has been stagnating for centuries. However, there seems to be some renewal going on. A tide is coming in. Some communities are riding the crest of the waves. The energy is there regardless of what we do. My concern is the tide could ebb again; the tide could go out again. We cannot force anyone to face their attachments. And there is the possibility that nature may get tired of the human family. We have the capacity to completely destroy everything. No species has been more destructive than we are.
Q:If we look at all major shifts in consciousness over the last 2000 years there seems to be a general movement of descent that happens from the ethereal plane all the way until the new consciousness is actually embodied on the physical plane, in people’s habits, interactions and world perspectives. In other words, a new consciousness is perceived in visions and intuitions, it then gets formulated into ideas, then gradually articulated, shared and communicated, and then it slowly descends into physicality, becomes “lived”. If we can understand and identify where consciousness wants to go (in terms of the next step in the evolutionary journey) and contribute, that is, work towards embodying it, couldn‘t this help evolution as a whole?
TK: The next step is the intuitive level of consciousness, which is still a limited state of consciousness. The problem is that the false self influences all states of consciousness until you have come out of the dark nights into the causal level. If you don‘t undertake the whole journey, you develop a bunch of pseudo spiritual people. Halfway is not good enough, and it is dangerous. The all-levels, all-quadrants approach (Ken Wilber) I really like. Genuine science is part of revelation. It is hard to persuade people to make use of that insight because of the long-standing battle between science and revelation. Every community has a collective unconscious. You would almost need to start out with a kind of think tank or spiritual experience laboratory where you can aim people at the final goal. Then instead of hacking away at the most obvious difficulties of the human family, you could integrate the next possible level of consciousness.
Q: How would such an endeavor look like? Maybe a village or a school where people are focused on living from the authentic self? What kind of school could that be?
TK: We could come up with something to try. But unless enough people are actually there, manifesting it gets distorted by lesser souls. There really is no substitute for purification. What do you do in the meantime? It must be understood as a healing process and it helps to see that that process is initiated by a higher being that has our well-being in mind, that is loving.
Q: And there is also the danger of personal identification with any project or effort, in the sense of „I have done this and that“. Really, anything can get co-opted by the ego…
TK: Yes, those are all hazards.
Q: A community can obviously be both a support to face our false self or it can also strengthen our false self. Given all the hazards, do you think it is necessary to have a central spiritual teacher/guru to keep a form of evolutionary tension in place?
TK: There used to be a saying that went like thiS: „The community is where the abbot is. If you don‘t have a good abbot you don‘t have a good community.“ But I think times are changing. That model was necessary for people who were emerging from a mythic level of consciousness into initial levels of mental egoic consciousness. But things are shifting. My feeling is that the future lies more with small communities with a certain level of enlightenment rather than depending on one individual. The more people there are who hold a certain level of awakening, the more potential exists. With an authentic guru there is much potential, and the question is whether you can go the route of „no guru“, find humans who have such a level of human maturity that they can keep hard at work at this thing without having the risks associated with engaging in a student/guru relationship. And lets remember that the risks are even greater for the guru him/herself. I certainly wouldn‘t want to be one. The subtleties of spiritual pride are something to be aware of. Many gurus have no support system. The problem with top-notch people is they need some peers. They need dialogue to nourish their own human condition, which is fragile at best. But the question remainS: Is it possible to establish a community where part of the vision is the total commitment to work on the false self, with a structure where one could be alerted to (lovingly invited to seeing and working on) one‘s failures. Where it is taken for granted that people are not judgmental; it is a safe place for dialogue. Where the corporate wisdom of the group is given a voice. Of course it would need to be accompanied by fidelity to practice. Depending on how young the people are you would also have to have opportunities for human development. The monastic wisdom of the ages is fairly simple. You need a dose of some silence, some discipline, some action, some prayer, some service. Unless people are really working on their false self, you are going to be dealing with false self issues on the community level most of the time.
There‘s another issue here: In Christian monasticism there is no guru except Christ, so there is some kind of built-in humility, but not enough to avoid the usual catastrophes. But the false self is so subtle – it certainly doesn‘t drop dead upon request. I feel that we need some kind of principle of loving service, of loving relationship with a higher power. So far, what I have heard, this higher power is for you some kind of collective higher mind.
Q: Eleven years ago an event marked us deeply: after two weeks of intensive prayer for the dawning of a new spiritual time (following the instruction and call of a contemporary Swiss mystic and visionary, Joa Bolendas), we gathered with three other individuals to found a spiritual community, seeking to welcome and embody the spirit of Christ in our midst – individually and as a group. Touched by the call to carry the presence of an awakened Heart into this world, we sought to participate in resurrecting the authentic Christ in our core.
In that beginning time we experienced that as we gathered together, leaving the pretenses of the false self behind and invoking and participating in union while remaining autonomous, something greater than the sum total of all the individuals gathered was present with us and in us. A new consciousness was emerging amongst us that gave us a glimpse of what is possible. We felt something literally landed, a tangible presence, through this shared focus of being in relation to God and letting God speak through us. Inspired by this time of grace, we attempted to find and live in such a way that the unique essence of the individual and the communal can interweave perfectly and manifest in an integral way, intending thus to co-create a model of what is possible and what we felt and feel is desperately required on earth at this time. Over the ten years we had further experiences of this new consciousness emerging (we began calling it ‚Christ Consciousness‘ or the ‚We-Being‘) – most often during our sacred circles (talking circles focused on spirit-led heart-sharing), but also at times while working in the garden, during a discussion etc. Always just glimpses – an hour here, a few minutes there, a couple of days, but never for sustained periods of time. How to sustain this, what are the ingredients, what is the recipe? – these questions guided our continued quest.
TK: That sounds very good. But not everyone has that faith in Christ. You would need some agreement about theological principles. How do you feel about excluding people?
S: People in the community don’t necessarily need to acknowledge Christ as their teacher or primary spiritual inspiration or guide. An important prerequisite is, however, that everyone comes from their true self, that self-concern has fallen to the background. Then an inquisitive and interested presence arises from each individual‘s true self. When coming together in this way something else emerges.
TK: Yes, I don‘t think it needs to be Jesus Christ, but it would need at least a belief in a higher power, a relationship with that, and being open to the possibility that this is God in some way.
M: Very true, the experience of the presence is beyond intellectual concepts, but there is a definite intuitive sense of relating to the same energy of God.
Q: What would be your way of describing this presence we are speaking of, your attempt at words? We have called it the “We-consciousness”, “Christ Consciousness”, “true communion while maintaining autonomy”…
What would be your definition of Christ consciousness? Are we off the mark calling it that?
TK: No, I don‘t think so, but other people might not call it that, depending on their particular faith tradition.
M: When Christ is not seen just within the Christian tradition, but Christ as who this being really was and is, then Christ is also being freed from being held and perceived solely from within the Christian tradition. People from other religions are starting to have a relationship with this presence/being.
TK: Christ really means the „word of God“ (Greek: Logos); it is the ultimate source of creation. The main thing is to acknowledge a higher power in some way. You can‘t control the experience. It comes when it wants to. This is a characteristic of it.
There are some hazards in this kind of community – working self-consciously on getting rid of the self is almost a contradiction. It can start turning into a self-help group, or group therapy session. Rather it needs to be a faith sharing. That‘s why faith in a higher power needs to be present. Else the human element takes over and it can become dissociating rather than unifying.
Q: Very true, but at the same time we feel there is a great need to create different ways of living together on this planet, to co-create living examples. A question we often ask ourselves and otherS: How would the “true self” express itself through a community? So far we have seen (over centuries) individuals come from this authentic place. What about a group? What would be the service to the world, what would be the relationship with the world? We feel this is where we need to go. Christ pointed in this direction and invited us to come together in a different way. In the ritual of communion he presents us with an experience of how: we are invited to partake in a higher consciousness. Many communities and projects fail or fall short of their original visions and goals because they miss the importance of the authentic self being at the forefront, they do not make it a priority to reside and live from the true self. And so the ego gets in the way. Maybe if people came together in their true self, we would see a whole new way of life emerging.
TK: Yes, but how do we get from where people are at to that place? How would you tell, even in oneself, besides one‘s intention, whether one was really coming from the true self? The purpose is to get to the community where this is happening. What is the true self? The question „Who are you?“ is really the ultimate question of life.
Q: How do you know whether you are coming from your true self and how do you know where other people are coming from?
TK: Well, I can hardly figure it out in myself let alone judge others – unless they asked me to (laughs). In Christian anthropology you can distinguish four centers of activity: the ordinary psychological awareness which is dominated by the false self or external circumstances and our emotional reactions to them; then the spiritual level which is the intuitive level would seem to be the next level that humanity is called to go through (it is the level of intuition and like all levels it doesn‘t deny but it gets rid of what was useless in the former level and includes what was good, according to Wilber‘s principle „transcend and include“); then beyond the spiritual level is the true self; and beyond that is the divine indwelling (which is God). St. John of the Cross says, „The center of the soul is God“. That last place is the only guarantee that you are coming from the authentic self. The true self is really a manifestation of the Unmanifest. And no one knows what the Unmanifest is except the Unmanifest itself and how it wants to manifest in our particular uniqueness. Even being in a place of peace, inner freedom can still be somewhat tainted. Because the moments when the true self really functions are so delightful. If they continued you‘d be in a permanent state of transformation. But they come as a sort of a harbinger of the future, as a sort of orientation to it. To have the glimpse holds a certain temptation that can lead some people into thinking they are already there, which is worse than not having the experience in the first place. I don‘t think the true self is so easy to identify. The false self is gross enough. But until you have lost the separate self sense, the false self insinuates in every activity. That‘s why a community in search of transformation is going to need different layers; different levels can speak and interact amongst each other, and then some interaction with other levels to see where they are going could be helpful. That is quite a futuristic vision. But, try it! What can happen without trying it? And I think there will be more candidates for such a process in the next 10-20 years. Not knowing what will happen, the present situation could explode and cause humanity to regress again. Evolution is not always a straight line.
Q: Do you have a sense of time in terms of how long we have as a human family to turn around?
TK: Well, you‘d better ask God these questions (laughs). It seems to me that the only possibility for change or improvement is enough people actually approaching transformation in their own private lives. Their journeys could be greatly accelerated by association with others even if they‘re not living together. As the essence of monastic prayer and life, silence is one of the most helpful tools, not in the sense of all the time, but periods of time – time every day when you don‘t think of the self at all, when you rest in God. That is what loosens up the unconscious. Practice would have a very significant place. And then the willingness to make use of that information, to trust in God, since silent prayer affirms the true self. We are made in the image of God; we must be like Him in some way. Practically speaking, there must be a sense of communion with the Ultimate Reality because that is where the true self is coming from. Once the unconscious begins to open up (it is the chief obstacle to the free flow of grace), everything begins to improve and the energy becomes available to the difficulties of the spiritual journey. So as long as the pathways of relating to people outside are maintained, as well as inside, then people have a kind of litmus test of how they are doing inside.
M: Yes, it would be important that individuals can reflect back to each other, but that there is also some reflection back to the whole community from the outside. This would be helpful in keeping the collective false self in check too.
TK: Exactly. Back to the question of a guru figure in a community – there is significance in the fact that in every aspect of the community they are dominant. That‘s not healthy, to lead people at all times. In our time you don‘t have to be led by a nurse, so to speak. A certain kind of personal responsibility is required, that a group of people are so motivated and would be the source of spiritual activity in the future, not now. This community (Snowmass) is small and so is able to engage in very fruitful dialogue, not quite on the level that we have been speaking about, but close to it. We have worked with a facilitator over the last thirteen years. So the level of communication is very good. You can point out how they come across to others, but on the basis of observation not judgment. So that has worked quite well, I don‘t know any other monastery that has done this.
M: I went to a Benedictine monastery school in Switzerland for 6 years – and it was full of false self.
TK: Well what did you expect? Just kidding… (laughs)
S: In addition to feedback and awareness coming from the outside, from other people, there is also the possibility of one’s spiritual practice, one’s relationship with God, providing a reflection and corrective input. How does this take place in the contemplative prayer practice. As far as I know this practice focuses mainly on sitting/being/immersing oneself in the presence of God. Is there any emphasis placed on the potential relational aspect? In your prayer life do you also experience a relational aspect with God, with Christ? A place of talking and listening to that Presence?
TK: Sure, prayer is essentially relationship. Being in itself is relationship; everything is in relationship with everything else that is. In human realms this tends to get rather personal. Not that God does not have a personal side. But yes, the whole contemplative journey from a Christian perspective is the deepening of the relationship with God, which involves the whole person and all the faculties. The human faculties have to be encouraged to engage in this journey, although at certain points they are left behind. But they are not discarded by any means. Rather they are enhanced by not being put in a straight jacket. So the presence of God is really everything, but our relationship to that presence is practically governed by what stage of relationship we‘re in – as in human relationships it moves from acquaintance, to friendliness, then to commitment manifested in hanging out with God, and surrender to God. The spiritual marriage. So it becomes non-dual and then it moves on even beyond the personal relationship where in some people, while extremely rare in this life, there is unity consciousness, which is a sense of oneness, where there is no other, including us; there is only God. God is all. So in a sense there isn‘t anything but God. Everything else has got it backwards. So since we tend to be afraid of God, the relationship is very important to cultivate. It‘s not a technique; it‘s a relationship. There may be a method of going about it, but the method is primarily being conscious, or remembering God‘s presence, and being exposed at certain specific times to the full intensity of God, like an embrace, a love relationship. And it erupts into daily life in various ways. God is so close that any experience is an interpretation of God. Rather than the God who actually is. And so this means, I think, that a very advanced person, or someone who is transformed or enlightened (there are stages of those things) – the earlier ones are not adequate for certain things such as taking the role of a guru: „God‘s gift to humanity“… you know there is such exaggeration that easily comes from an adoring public. It‘s pretty hard to take that as a steady diet without saying, „maybe there is something to this after all…“ But my understanding of the dark nights is that they convince you that you are capable of any evil, given certain circumstances. So there is nothing really to show for the human journey. Success is simply an illusion.
S: What about Christ? Didn‘t he go through all the temptations and actually transcend the false self completely?
TK: I don‘t think he had one to begin with. If he really was God, the true self must have been working from the beginning. I presume that is what is meant with the Immaculate Conception – that Mary had no false self.
S: In John‘s gospel (John 14:12 ) it says, „You can do everything I have done and even greater things“? What is your understanding of this passage?
TK: Christ continues to expand with humanity. His capacities increase with those who are joining him in that state.
S: He seems to be pointing to evolution, to the eternal expansion and unfolding we are a part of.
S: Another question: The Christian tradition has put a lot of emphasis on sin in relation to thoughts… At the same time, as you sink into a being relationship with God, it seems that thoughts don‘t find their center of gravity around yourself. They don‘t seem so personal.
TK: They aren‘t. Certainly, everything a human can invent must exist somewhere in advance, so there must be a database that includes everything that ever happened. On any level of consciousness… you can get a rerun of it!
S: Would you say, to use Hindu terminology, that thoughts don‘t create karma, but actions do?
TK: Thoughts that are consented to can also create karma – the cutting edge physicists say you can‘t have a thought without instantly influencing the rest of the universe and everything in it. Science is coming out with more mystical concepts than you ever hear in a Sunday service. The level of the big bang thinking is that everything that existed has emerged from the energy that was in that trillionth of a second, which was so dense that only an incredible energy, which scientists can‘t figure out, could have blown it apart.
M: Then what you are saying is that karma, sin, happens as soon as you identify with a thought?
TK: Yes, but in Christian perspective, karma is conditional. Christ has lifted the rules of karma with his life, by taking all the sufferings of the world onto himself.
S: But there is still the whole “confession thing” in relation to thoughts, not just to actions – for example, I have a thought of stealing money from my neighbor, and then I go to the priest and say „I have sinned for I have coveted my neighbor’s money, may my sins be forgiven“. So a direct association is made between thinking (even if the thought is not acted upon) and sin, or having missed the mark somehow. Does “sin” begin when identification with a certain thought happens? Cause you could, for example, just be sitting reading a newspaper, the thought of stealing from your neighbor arises, you give it no further attention and it just keeps going, it moves on and nothing happened.
TK: It is not punible to us unless we embrace this thought. If we give it attention. The desert fathers distinguished four levels of temptation. The first is just a thought, the second is when you start discussing whether you‘ll do it or not and then you get into the dialogue „Shall I do it? Shall I not?“ Then you consent and usually act it out. It is an important part of the psychological development of the spiritual journey to realize that we are not our thoughts. We have thoughts, but you can change them. No thought can do you any harm unless you make it your own. Emotions are the same. We created in early childhood a sort of identity to avoid the pain of separation, being a separate self in a potentially hazardous world. The parents‘ role is to make it less hazardous so that you don‘t become an emotional wreck.
M: Is there any way a parent could speed up/facilitate the journey for the child, so that the recognition, the distinction between true self and false self could happen, for example, at the age of twelve instead of at thirty or during a mid-life crisis?
TK: As soon as the child gets the message that the mother isn‘t going to do everything for it anymore, the oceanic bliss of the womb (which is no self-consciousness) diminishes and you see yourself as separate from her, you are on the road to human misery. All sin comes from the sense of seeing oneself as separate from God. We are distinct but not separate. So drop that thought and your troubles will be over. The problem is how do you do that?
M: And how do you encourage a child to do that?
TK: I don‘t think you can because you can‘t appeal to them. It seems to be the way that God decided to let it happen. We all have to go through this growth of the ego; in fact we need a good sense of self identity. When you have it, you have to give it to God. Without it you have nothing to give God. Obviously, if you think you are nobody, how can you have anything to give?
M: So the true self sense becomes conscious by going through the journey of loosing the sense of oceanic oneness, building the ego and then consciously relinquishing it.
S: Do you think that the true, original message of Christianity (before it became diluted) is the most complete since it recognizes evolution, that is, the continuous unfolding of God becoming manifest on earth and throughout the entire universe, thus integrating both being and becoming?
TK: What is significant is faith in the fact that God actually became this particular human being called Jesus Christ. We are certainly incarnations of God too, but not in the sense of the identity that Christ had. So the uniqueness of Christ, which is the hot potato in inter-religious dialogue, is a crucial issue, and you can‘t ask anyone to believe in that unless they have that faith. But I think with that faith there is an extraordinary encouragement in the spiritual life and it is reflected in whatever meditative practice. I‘ve met lots of folks who have done wonderful in Vipassana meditation. For a while it‘s a great technique, a great mind discipline. But at one point, if they have a Christian background, they feel uncomfortable with it because it is so impersonal; it is so self-perfectionistic. The Mahayana would make that same objection. The bodhisatva ideal speaks of universal compassion. Basically Vipassana is for disciplining the mind. But it needs to be further developed and other forms of Buddhism did that.
S: So what would you say is the main difference between Buddhism and Christianity?
TK: Christ came in human form and it is therefore possible to have a personal relationship with Christ – this is the path that gradually transforms the human relationship with Jesus as a historical figure into a subtle movement into his divine person. Christ is available to every human being. It doesn‘t mean that Christianity has everything; it doesn‘t. The Spirit of God has been working in those traditions too and continues to do so after Christ‘s resurrection. All religions present a certain approach to the mystery of God and no one religion could possibly contain it all. There are areas where dialogue can make a great difference. Dialogue is essential to get over centuries of violence; in this way some of the treasures of another religion can be shared. There is no reason you couldn‘t do a Vipassana practice and a Christian meditation too. Actually if you see Christian prayer/meditation as a personal relationship, as an intimate relationship with the Ultimate Reality, you are not dealing with techniques for self-perfection, but with unconditional love. In Christianity it doesn‘t matter how bad you are, you are still loved. The Ultimate Reality is Daddy, is Abba. Christ, the experience of Jesus Christ that God is nurturing, caring, close, concerned. That confidence is an incomparable support in the spiritual journey when we are facing the dark side of our personality in a big way. But it is not the only way. As Paul himself said, if we have known Christ according to the flesh (that is, as the historical Jesus) “we now know him so no longer.” Our dependence on him as a human being has been relinquished in favor of a more advanced communion with the divine person that possessed this human nature that is historically known as Jesus Christ. Without co-opting the other two parts of the Trinity, which is a mystery in the Christian tradition – it is that total gift of love, of total transference of the riches of the Godhead from one to the other. There is no self in God, no possessiveness; everything is gift. There is a certain emptying that is like God wishing He wasn‘t God. He is not interested in honor and praise. What He really asks is that we allow him to love us. This is a receptive attitude – Christian contemplation. There is nothing to do to win God‘s love; we already have it. This doesn‘t mean that once we‘ve got it God doesn‘t ask us to do something with the gifts He has given us. And this is what it means to be an apostle – it means to be sent, not to go and do your own initiative. To be sent means to be a manifestation of God‘s love for everyone. God is determined to bring people to salvation. All the threats in the Old Testament – God as angry etc… have to be transcended. The levels of growing up in which our attitude towards God needs to change and mature; it is contemplation that reveals God as infinite mercy. What we experience as negative is simply part of the healing, the divine therapy. In this ideal community you envisage, you would have to think of how you are going to present God, the nature of this higher power. But I have found in my religious dialogue that I don‘t have much difficulty with Buddhist ideas. I have discovered in intimate talk with them that terms are deceptive. If you don‘t know the culture, you don‘t get the nuances of the experience. For a long time I thought that Buddhists were saying that Nirvana was the total loss of self. They say that is actually not the case, but that one‘s identity remains, but that there is no self-consciousness. Buddhist compassion has a distinct quality, but is very close to transformation, so I think it is quite probable that the ultimate experience of God is the same. Every brain will interpret a spiritual experience through its own cultural conditioning.
S: One major difference I see between the two religions is the tendency in Buddhism to emphasize personal liberation, whereas Christ‘s teachings place a strong emphasis on liberation as having nothing to do with oneself personally, but rather with participating in the movement of the whole human family towards liberation.
TK: Don‘t be too severe on the Buddhists! Those who are most advanced would agree with that.
S: Very true, and in the same light most Christians are also attempting to carve themselves a spot in heaven.
M: We are attempting to write a book about what we perceive the next step in the evolution of consciousness to be – about individuals coming together in the authentic self, giving rise to Christ consciousness. Does that make any sense to you? Have you experienced this in monastic communities? Do you have any suggestions on how to put this into words? (Here Stephan adds an analogy following the pattern of biological evolution: individuals units coming together to give rise to a more complex and wholesome being – in this way atoms join to form molecules, molecules come together to give rise to a cell, cells then join to allow for the emergence of an organism etc… Following this pattern, the next logical step would be persons to come together to give rise to a new being, a new consciousness)
TK: Oh sure! The holon analogy is what the mystical body of Christ means. Yes it is very orthodox. Yes, I have experienced that once in a while, but not continuously. I don‘t think it needs to be constant, but is easily accessible and can be expressed appropriately, but it usually arises, as you have said, spontaneously.
S: In your experience, does it feel like a descent, like something enters the room?
S: When this happens, can you verify it with other people who are present?
TK: Yes, they will have felt it too, sometimes unspoken. When meditation is very deep you can almost cut it with a knife. When the silence is really there, everyone will feel it.
S: When it comes in and leaves – does every one feel this? Can you cross-reference?
TK: Sure. Even just with one other person.
M: How would you describe that? We have used the terms “Christ consciousness”, “We-Being”, “We-consciousness”… we are still looking for words to describe the happening. What would you call that presence?
TK: Do you have to label this thing?
S: Well if you‘re going to write about it…
TK: If it‘s real it is kind of ineffable. I guess we would call it an intensification of a presence that is already there. But I wouldn‘t overdo the importance of it either, because there is a further level of unity that is beyond experience. Pure faith goes beyond the experience. If we are entering into unity with a race that is in terrible shape, we will find ourselves immersed in confusion, suffering, horrors, even spiritually. By being immersed in it psychologically, spiritually, we are entering into the redemptive process. We have to accept the pain of absence, the load of suffering that the rest of humanity is still subjected to. It is about finding out that one is totally interdependent and interconnected with everything else in creation and especially the human family, which means you are involved with the consequences of other people‘s sins, whether you like it or not. Christ found himself in this situation – even if he had no karma. If you have no karma you may be asked to take on somebody else‘s. (laughs). So there is no way out of suffering. And God even changes that into the greatest wisdom.
M: I would like to return to the contemplative prayer part of the discussion…. do you see any purpose in praying for peace or in other words, in engaging actively, participating through prayer for healing to happen?
TK: Yes that is the natural movement of the Divine life growing in us. We have received the fruits of the spirit: charity, joy, peace. We have to become like God. God is nothing and everything both together and not just one or the other.
S: Do have a sense that eventually this oneness that we share could be expressed in full harmony on physical earth?
TK: Well, that‘s the project! Whether that‘s going to happen in this generation I doubt. But I think it could happen.
S: Can it happen without a catastrophe?
TK: I don‘t think so. Consider your own life. How much it took to get you converted to the spiritual path. Was there not some resistance?
S: Oh yes.
TK: When this resistance is reinforced by 99.9% of the population, your friends and relatives, you have to be a mighty strong person to take off to the hermitage or the ghetto, or wherever you see the values of the gospel. It‘s an incredible project. Nobody could have thought this up except God. To turn these creatures that are just dust into God, into participants in the Divine nature seems to be the project.
Some of the books coming out now are quite significant. I think Ken Wilber has made a great contribution. Christopher Bache gave me the insight that we are really much more involved with the rest of humanity than reincarnation presents. I personally find it difficult to accept some of its implications. But on the other hand, what is the alternative? Purgatory means reincarnation into some other form of life, where what was unfinished in reducing the false self in completed. And then there is diversity in heaven too (Jesus says there are many mansions). Maybe not everyone is expected to negotiate the whole. Most people used to die in their forties. We now have twice as long to negotiate this journey, if you live in the West. The average age in this country is now 77, so if you normally would have died at 40, you now have two lifetimes.
M: We have a last question that we would like to touch on before we close….Have you always experienced the dark night as a period with a clear beginning and end or something that accompanies the spiritual journey on and off?
TK: It depends on the person. St. John of the Cross says we don‘t know. Some might go through it sooner, others later. In general, the night of the senses takes longer, it undermines the false self. It takes the night of sense to heal the root of the tree and remove the ego from being the center of the universe. Bernadette Roberts claims that after transforming union there is another period where the self, as in a personalized identity, is invited to be surrendered. The path from transforming union to unity consciousness is a whole additional journey ending in what she calls the experience of no-self. It is a further night and more profound. It corresponds to Jesus‘ death when descended into hell, not so much as a place, but a state of consciousness. Jesus, as a result of taking the whole ocean of human misery into his own consciousness, including death, was raised by the power of the Father and along with him everyone else, in virtue of the interconnectedness, interdependence, and oneness of the human family. The oneness of the human family has not been preached nearly enough in the Christian tradition. It is time to exercise this in season and out of season. In some ways Zen Buddhism has emphasized it, but then most of the outstanding forms of Buddhism have moved to this country, so we‘re not getting the average cross-section of the religion as it is present in the culture it comes from. One Buddhist teacher told me that Buddhism was in decline and that the best way to learn it was in this country. Because of the existing plurality in this country it is the best place for inter-religious dialogue. You can‘t do it at this level in a place where one religion predominates. You can see this in Islamic or Catholic countries. Cultural conditioning is so strong; very few people can climb out of it completely. I don‘t think anyone ever does completely. We can‘t get it out of the brain. But we can be aware of it, let it go and not be unduly influenced by it.
M and S: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today.