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The Heart of the Christian-Hindu Dialogue with Wayne Teasdale
This video was filmed in 1991. Wayne died in October 2004.
Wayne Teasdale is a Christian sannyasi, that is, someone who follows both the Christian and Hindu contemplative paths. He was a friend and disciple of the Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths who headed Shantivanam, a Christian-Hindu ashram in India. This wide-ranging interview, taped at Hundred Acres Monastery in New Hampshire, describes the history of the Christian-Hindu dialogue in India, the work of Bede Griffiths, and tackles the difficult question of the relationship between Hindu and Christian mystical experience.
Format: straight interview with several insertions of photographs taken at Shantivanam.
"For those interested in the ground-breaking work of Bede Griffiths in India this is a very useful tape... and it would provide some helpful background material for discussion or reflection on the relationship between Hindu and Christian mystical experience." Monos
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Wayne lives at 100 Acres Monastery in New Hampshire.
Jim. How did the Christian-Hindu dialogue begin in India?
Wayne. It began before DiNobili. Christianity in Indian began more than 500-700 years ago. Some think St. Thomas the Apostle brought it to India and was martyred there.
Abhishiktananda is a modern example of someone who has delved deeply into the Hindu tradition on an experiential basis while still remaining Christian.
Roberto DiNobili was a missionary. He learned Tamil and Sanskrit and read the sacred texts. He began to see that there was a very deep spiritual experience behind these texts that was valid, and that the Christian tradition could not have sole monopoly over mystical experience. He learned their culture and had his own mystical experience. He took sannyasa because he realized they had a deep insight into spiritual transformation in that tradition. He had to live as an Indian in India.
Jim. What did that entail?
Wayne. He stopped eating meat, went barefoot, etc. He became an Indian.
Jim. Was there a follow-through on what he initiated?
Wayne. Rome approved of what he did. The Portuguese wing of the Church opposed him.
Jim. How did the modern movement start?
Wayne. When the British came in, England gave to India a sense of her identity. Texts were translated into English. In the 17th century there was a Hindu renaissance.
At the turn of the century Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya was a Brahman, then an Anglican, then a Catholic, and then a sannyasa. He influenced a lot of Westerners and was the first to see India being independent from Britain. He gave a lot of ideas to modern people. He wrote about sat-chit-ananda in terms of the Trinity. Christianity had to put on the habit of India. He was the first to suggest an Indian theology. He saw Vedanta as a metaphysics that would be available to Christianity to develop its own articulation.
Jim. What is the lineage of Fr. Bede?
Wayne. Jules Monchanin and Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux) founded Shantivanam in 1950. Le Saux plunged into Hinduism. He sat in the presence of Ramana who was a silent seer, and was awakened. Abhishiktananda spent months in the caves of Arunachala and got caught in the vortex of depth which he never got out of. He had an experience of total unity with the Absolute.
Jim. What about Fr. Bede, himself? How did he end up in India?
Wayne. As a little boy he made friends with a Sikh in the military. Later he had a mystical experience of nature. In school he and his teacher, C.S. Lewis, read the Bible as literature, and both were converted back to Christianity.
Fr. Benedict Alaphat came to England and met Bede, and invited Bede to go to India and found a community. He learned Sanskrit. The experiment failed. Bede went to Shantivanam in 1958 and stayed. Before no one stayed at the ashram, but under Bede it flourished.
Jim. What kind of life do they lead there?
Wayne. Christian sannyasa means the translation of the Christian spiritual life into an Indian context. The sannyasa tradition is 4,500 years old. It means adapting the asceticism of that life.
Jim. What kind of daily schedule does Shantivanam follow?
Wayne. Two pillars of the day are two hours of meditation - an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening - and Mass said in the Indian style. They live in simple one-room huts.
Jim. What about work? Do they grow food or make handcrafts?
Wayne. They have 12-15 acres. Another ashram is across the road and takes care of guests. They have rice paddies, and have cows. The monks dont work much because the workers come from the village. One is a composer, another an artist, one does social service in the village, etc.
Jim. Tell us how you got interested in all this.
Wayne. It began when I was 18 and read The Golden String by Bede. It is about how a mind goes from agnosticism to faith. Then I met a monk who told me about Shantivanam, and I wrote Bede in 1973 who invited me to come to India. In 1979 while I was still in Fordham he came to the U.S. and I traveled with him. He came back in 1983, and gave a 10-day retreat in Kansas City, Kansas. I decided to work on Bedes thought as my dissertation. (In 1980 he became a Camaldolese.) I wrote Towards a Christian Vedanta.
Jim. What was it like to go to India?
Wayne. I was afraid because India is like another planet. They are more on the level of the unconscious. I feared I would freak out. I first went to a Christian ashram, and then went to Shantivanam which was a lot poorer. I had a little hut. The food was a problem and I got sick. I missed the comforts of home like toilet paper and privacy. It is a very noisy country. No one prepared me for the level of noise in the village. I couldnt wait to go back to the U.S. When I got sick I realized I could die in India, and I surrendered to that, and the whole experience changed and I had some profound awakenings.
Jim. What is the goal of embracing these two traditions?
Wayne. It is not building a new religion. It is like a hand. The fingers are five religions and they all lead to the palm where they are all one. Existential convergence is to come to that reality where they are all one.
Jim. What is the heart of the Hindu mystical experience?
Wayne. Hinduism has many sects in it. There are different schools in Vedanta. Most Indians follow nonduality, pure unity. What does that mean? Thats where the different schools come in. There is qualified nonduality. The ultimate reality and the human reality and the creation are one.
There are three levels of reality: the appearing universe, the psychological or soul level in the unconscious, and the spiritual level where it is all one. The mystic in Hinduism is turned into that experience of unity. We are talking about an experience we dont have a language for.
Religions grow and there is the personal experience of God. One has to go beyond unity. We are relational beings, and communion is the goal of all our relationships.
Sat-chit-ananda is a metaphor for the Godheads nature as the act of the awareness of the fullness of existence in bliss, the bliss of being totally conscious of being the fullness of existence.
Jim. How would you relate Christian contemplation in which someone has a personal experience with God to Hindu mystical experience?
Wayne. The experience is so overwhelming that our personal sense of self is overshadowed, and one can say there is only pure unity. Sri Arubindo kept going and said there was always more than the unity.
Advaita just states the ontological reality of entering into the presence of God, but it just takes us into the alcove of that experience and doesnt begin to articulate or formulate or give you any sense of the dynamic nature of the Godhead.
Jim. Would it be fair to say that it takes someone into the inwardness of the Godhead?
Jim. When you say alcove, how do you continue that analogy?
Wayne. God is both personal and impersonal. There is a dynamic communion going on within God. The Trinitarian relationship is very dynamic and is a community of being, and is very hard to express.
Jim. What are the kinds of problems you see in the Hindu-Christian dialogue?
Wayne. One is to try to force a synthesis before it is clearly seen. Another is superficiality. Either side could lose their identity in the other.
Jim. You mentioned how deeply Henri Le Saux entered into the Hindu experience, but what is your opinion of how well he integrated this experience with his Christian tradition?
Wayne. It was an agony for him. He knew advaita was true, and he knew the Trinity was true, and he knew they were relatable, but he didnt know how. He always fell back on Eckhart. His real intention was to integrate it in his own experience. At the end of his life he did integrate it, but he didnt fully articulate it.
Jim. Would it be possible that Catholics or Christians who are not well-founded in their own traditions would practice Hinduism and end up at advaita, and not see that there are two experiences that ought to be brought together?
Wayne. I think that has happened many, many times. (gives examples) When you are deeply grounded in your tradition and you have some experience of the mystical life in your tradition, then you have a good foundation to go into another tradition, and when you go into the other tradition what inevitably happens is it takes you deeper into your own tradition. You discover Christ and the Trinity on a deeper level there.
Jim. Would it be fair to say that while these two mystical experiences are deeply interrelated, they are not identical?
Wayne. Yes, I think that is fair to say. As far as my own experience extends, that would be the direction I would go in. I could be wrong. Maybe they are identical. In mysticism we are all only novices. But I dont think they are all equal.
Jim. What about the Hindu side of the Christian-Hindu dialogue. How interested are Hindus in this dialogue?
Wayne. We have had so much frustration with Hindus. They are not committed to dialogue. Some are fascinated with it, but they always see it in the Hindu context that Hinduism embraces everything. Hinduism can hi-jack Christianity and obliterate differences.
Jim. Do you think a genuine Indian Catholic Church is going to develop?
Wayne. Yes, I think so. I think it is happening. The Catholic Church in India has a siege mentality against Hinduism, and is conservative. Christianity in its traditional form is European. It is not universal in its expression. Only 2% of Asia is Christian. The institutional form of Christianity is unintelligible to the oriental mind. There has to be this inculturation process which has to happen. That is my hope and my expectation.
How to Order
A Complete List of Books, DVDs and CDs
Teasdale and The Mystic Heart