An Interview with
J. Glenn Friesen

Glenn Friesen PA130032.jpg (920083 bytes)

When I asked Glenn to do this interview, I told him to imagine the questions that an astute interviewer would ask, and then answer them. The result is a probing portrait of Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux), the Benedictine monk who was a pioneer in Hindu-Christian dialogue in India. Jim Arraj

Glenn obtained his doctorate in 2001 with a thesis entitled "Abhishiktananda’s Non-Monistic Advaitic Experience." A copy of this thesis can be viewed on Glenn’s website at http://www.members.shaw.ca/abhishiktananda/.

Jim: Glenn, you earned a graduate degree in philosophy in 1976. You then studied and practiced law as a litigation attorney for almost 20 years before returning to university to obtain your doctorate in religious studies with a thesis on Abhishiktananda. How does this all fit together and how did you first become interested in Abhishiktananda?

Glenn: Well, I am still fitting it all together. I first learned about Abhishiktananda when I took a course in 1996 from Julius Lipner of Cambridge. But why was I attracted to Abhishiktananda’s dialogue with Hinduism? I think that there were both good and bad reasons. The bad reasons were the ones that attract many people to the study of eastern religions: the perceived exoticism of the east and the fascination with special powers to be obtained in the practice of eastern mysticism. The good reasons were the intensity and honesty that I recognized in Abhishiktananda’s dialogue with Hinduism.

Jim: When did you first become interested in eastern religion, and Hinduism in particular?

Glenn: I grew up in the 1950’s in a strict Mennonite family. We had no television. And there was no movie theater in town. But once a year, the high school showed Rudyard Kipling’s "Kim," because the book was on the high school curriculum. It’s not a particularly good movie, but it was one of the few that I ever saw as a child, and I thought that it was terrific. I was fascinated by the scene where Kim is hypnotized, and he begins to see the shattered remains of the jug begin to come together. It is not a very good example of special powers or siddhis. But I felt the same attraction when I went to India in 1995. Because of illness, I had been obliged to give up my practice of law. A friend invited me to attend a wedding in India. The Hindu priest who conducted the ceremony was a remarkable person. I consulted him in a private session because of his reputed psychic abilities. He asked me to name a color, a flower, and a river, and he then told me a great deal about my life, including the fact that I had had to leave my job. I had the distinct feeling that there was more to life than is dreamed of in our western philosophies, and I have to say that this experience, and others similar to it, were among the (wrong) motivations for studying Hinduism. Ramana Maharshi’s view was that such siddhis are real powers, but that if they are actively sought, they are distractions to the spiritual life, and actually increase the ego of those who practice them.

Jim: Was that your first visit to India?

Glenn: Oh, no. My first visit was as a hippie in the early 70’s. I caught a freak bus in Istanbul and made my way overland with a copy of Hesse’s Journey to the East. Like the characters in the book, I was disillusioned, not realizing that the fault lay more within me than within India. I traveled around India for three months, and was alternately repelled and attracted by what I saw. I did not find a guru, but I did briefly visit Aurobindo’s ashram. I also visited a village in Andhra Pradesh where my grandfather had donated the money to build a leprosy clinic. The Mennonites had a missionary interest in India as far back as the beginning of the 1900’s.

Jim: Did you continue studying Hinduism after that first visit to India?

Glenn: Well, that’s a good question. In my late teens, I had been influenced by an American evangelical, Francis Schaeffer. He had set up a community called l’Abri in Switzerland, and many young people visited l’Abri to seek his advice, as if he were a Christian guru. He gave us dire warnings of the influence of the east and the dangers of pantheism. So I enrolled in a Bible College, and took a course in World Religions. My concern with Christian apologetics was still a primary motivation when I switched to the University of Saskatchewan in 1971 and took a course in Far Eastern Religions. But I began to realize that the issues were not as simple as I had at first thought. Perhaps I as a Christian could learn something from the east. And so made my own journey to the east.

Jim: Was there any other impetus for studying Hinduism?

Glenn: After my hippie trip, I studied philosophy at the Free University of Amsterdam. I was interested in the Christian philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd [1894-1977]. I had to choose a minor alongside my interest in philosophy. I chose what was called "The phenomenology of non-western religions," concentrating on Hinduism. I studied the German writings of Klaus Klostermaier. At the time I was studying in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum had on display a beautiful Natraj, and I used to view this sculpture quite often, with both a fascination as well as some anxiety at its impact on me. So you can see that in my own way, I was beginning a dialogue between Christian and Hindu philosophy.

Jim: So that’s why when you later heard about Abhishiktananda, you were interested in his dialogue with Hinduism?

Glenn: Yes, that’s it. Abhishiktananda mirrored my own existential quest. My interest was certainly not just academic.

Jim: Did you visit India again as part of that quest?

Glenn: Yes, for the purpose of my thesis, I conducted research at the Abhishiktananda archives in New Delhi. I also visited the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, who was such a powerful influence on Abhishiktananda. More than 50 years after his death, or mahasamadhi, the ashram still has this wonderful sense of peace. I participated in worship in various Hindu temples, including the magnificent temple at Tiruvannamalai, where Ramana had fled as a teenager. I also visited Gnanananda’s ashram in Tirukoilur, called Tapovanam. Gnanananda was Abhishiktananda’s guru, the subject of his beautiful book Guru and Disciple. The ashram is presently under the leadership of Swami Nityananda, and he welcomed me enthusiastically; Tapovanam is still a wonderful place to practice meditation. And of course I visited Shantivanam. Shantivanam was never a success while it was being established by Abhishiktananda and Monchanin; it only became so after Bede Griffiths took over. When I visited, no one had taken Griffiths’ place, so there was somewhat of a leadership vacuum, but it was still a very beautiful and restful place, and I have advised others to visit it. The images on top of the chapel, such as Christ seated in the lotus position, are quite exceptional. And the Sanskrit/Tamil/English mass, with its waving of lights and incense in the Hindu fashion, stirred up in me some very strong experiences.

Jim: You seem to be emphasizing the importance of experience. Do you think that Abhishiktananda can be studied in too academic a fashion?

Glenn: Yes I do! But I also do not want to give the impression that what must be sought is a subjectivistic kind of experience or Erlebnis. Our whole view of what is subjective and what is objective needs to be revised. I react strongly against the cynical kind of academics that believes itself to be "objective" but is in fact only unaware of its own metaphysics. I was at a conference last year where someone presented a paper trying to show that Abhishiktananda’s whole dialogue was not genuine, in that he could always fall back on his beliefs as a Catholic, and that he could play with and construct interpretations of Hinduism that were really only the projections of his Christian beliefs. In other words, that the whole of his experience was just an experiment in inculturation, imposing Christianity on India while adopting some of its customs and language. Although such a constructivist viewpoint is trendy in today’s postmodernism, it is actually a kind of hyper-modernism, since it ascribes such an importance to our rational intellect, which is then regarded as forming and constructing our experience. This kind of constructivist criticism also fails to recognize Abhishiktananda’s genuine anguish in his struggle to understand advaita. His Diary, Ascent to the Depths of the Heart, shows that he sometimes even wondered whether he was sacrificing his soul for only an illusion.

Jim: What about the argument that our disconnected and dualistic view of the universe is caused by our intellect, when it distinguishes between subject and object? Does that not imply that constructivism is correct, and that we do construct a universe which only advaita can correct by abandoning theory?

Glenn: This is a most important point. This kind of argument, which can be found even in the writings of nondualists like David Loy, presupposes that the diversity of our universe is the same as logical diversity. But in fact our logical distinctions are only one kind of diversity within the cosmos. They are not the source of such diversity. To regard rational thought as the source of cosmic diversity is to overestimate the importance of thought while simultaneously denying its importance. It is a kind of logicism. I see the same inconsistency in Ken Wilber, who views logical distinctions as the primary dualism. I believe that we need to reconcile the sense of unity in the advaitic experience with an appreciation for the diversity of the temporal world, and an appreciation for the importance of theory, which depends on logical distinction.

Jim: You have referred to the diversity of the world. Doesn’t Hinduism say that that is maya, illusion?

Glenn: Sometimes Abhishiktananda takes this view that the world is illusion, and that we must go beyond the world of distinction to that which alone is real. But sometimes he takes the more tantric view that maya means the creative power of Brahman. That is how Ramana Maharshi understood the term. Ramana says that the world is not totally unreal. It is only unreal when it is seen apart from Brahman. And Ramana cites the Vivekacudamani in support, which he ascribes to Shankara. Now it can be debated whether this is really Shankara’s work or whether it reflects tantric and other influences. What is important is that Ramana’s view of the relative reality of the world assumes that maya is not illusion, but rather the creative power of Brahman. The world is illusion only when we attempt to see it as separate from Brahman.

Jim: But we are often told that in meditation we go beyond all distinction of subject and object. Doesn’t that mean that we have to get beyond the subject/object distinction of rational thought?

Glenn: Abhishiktananda is not consistent in this. In some places, he takes that viewpoint. Elsewhere, he speaks of the power of the solitary monk’s prayers in upholding the world. Now that is a view that affirms the diversity of the world. And I think we must be careful to continue to ask what it is we mean by ‘subject’ and ‘object.’ Just because there are certain wrong and absolutizing views of temporal reality does not mean that there is not a proper view of the subject.

Jim: What do you mean by ‘absolutizing?’

Glenn: When we absolutize, we view the temporal world as real in and of itself, apart from its relation to humans and apart from its relation to God. But the temporal world has no reality in itself; it exists only insofar as it is related to God, Brahman. Absolutizing involves setting up some function of our temporal experience, such as our rationality which we then call ‘subject’ and opposing this to other parts of our experience that we label ‘object.’ But there are other ways of viewing the subject, and this is what I love about Abhishiktananda’s (and Ramana’s) emphasis on the heart as the center of our existence–a heart that is more than just our rationality, but our full and complete, our true Selfhood.

Jim: Do you think that Abhishiktananda was consistent in how he regarded theoretical thought?

Glenn: No, I don’t. And that is why he felt that he lived in paradox. He wrote books and had rational discussions. Visiting sadhus could not believe that he carried so many books around with him, as well as his typewriter. Abhishiktananda failed to integrate his view of advaitic experience with the importance of what he actually was doing when he was not meditating–his writing and his thinking. He devalued rationality at the same time as he practiced it. Actually, this same devaluation of thought occurs in many nondual traditions. There is for example the Buddhist emphasis on rationality as "skillful means" to bring us to advaita. But that does not give any value to thought itself; rational argument is only useful in bringing you to kick away the ladder of thought. I believe that that is an inherently contradictory way of regarding our experience, and one that leads to an acosmic rejection of the temporal world in which we do this thinking.

Jim: You have criticized Abhishiktananda’s inconsistency with respect to the value of theoretical thought, as well as his acosmism. Do you have any other criticism of Abhishiktananda?

Glenn: Well, I don’t like the way that he was influenced by his student Marc Chaduc.

Jim: You mean that Chaduc influenced Abhishiktananda? I thought that it was the other way around.

Glenn: No, we can see a definite influence of Chaduc on Abhishiktananda, and Abhishiktananda himself admits this influence. Abhishiktananda had been trying to relate his understanding of advaita to a Christian Trinitarian understanding, particularly in his book Saccidananda, which he was in the process of revising. Chaduc challenged Abhishiktananda to return to his original emphasis on meditation and acosmism. Chaduc believed in an extreme form of acosmism. Prior to meeting Abhishiktananda, he had been strongly influenced by Swami Ram Tirth, who was rumored to have ended his life by offering himself to the River Ganges. It seems that Chaduc may have done the same, although all that can be proved is that he disappeared from his hut beside the Ganges, leaving his glasses behind. But I see Chaduc as a very unfortunate influence on Abhishiktananda.

Jim: What does Abhishiktananda’s Diary tell us about Chaduc’s influence?

Glenn: Well, there is a problem in that Chaduc destroyed the originals of Abhishiktananda’s diaries dating after November, 1966. So we have only Chaduc’s transcription of what was in those diaries. We don’t know what was left out. But we do know that Chaduc encouraged Abhishiktananda to reject rationality and to achieve nirvikalpa samadhi.

Jim: What about Chaduc’s own diaries?

Glenn: Well, that is also very interesting. Chaduc’s own diaries have been in the possession of Odette Baumer-Despeigne, and they have never been opened up to inspection by scholars. This has caused some speculation as to the nature of the relationship between Chaduc and Abhishiktananda. Personally, I don’t think that the actual diaries could be any more shocking than some of the speculation about a homoerotic relationship. Even if that were the case, it would not change my estimation of Abhishiktananda’s importance.

Jim: Do you believe that Abhishiktananda achieved his goal of nirvikalpa samadhi?

Glenn: No, I don’t. When I began writing my thesis, I assumed that he had achieved this goal, but what I found was something quite different. ‘Nirvikalpa’ means to go beyond distinctions, beyond subject and object. And if we carefully read Abhishiktananda’s Diary, we see that he continues to make distinctions, even during his most intense experience with Chaduc. And we have to conclude that it was Chaduc and not Abhishiktananda who went into trance. Here we have Abhishiktananda who tried for so long to achieve nirvikalpa samadhi, and then his disciple or chela apparently achieves it rather effortlessly before his eyes. Abhishiktananda is almost envious of this, but explains it in terms of the reciprocal relation between chela and guru. He refers to the child being the father of the man. What I find fascinating is that Ramana Maharshi, whom Abhishiktananda was emulating, does not himself advocate nirvikalpa samadhi. He does not even encourage meditation, saying that it leads to a strengthening of our ego. What he does encourage is sahaja samadhi, the state of the realized person who lives in the world. This person is the jivanmukta, the one who is liberated while alive.

Jim: But didn’t Ramana believe that you have to first achieve nirvikalpa samadhi before achieving sahaja samadhi?

Glenn: No. He says that sahaja samadhi can be directly experienced in the heart. He makes the analogy, if you want to go to Tiruvannamalai from Madras, why go to Benares first? We should search for the origin of the ego by diving into the heart, and not waste our time in meditation on the chakras, nadis, padmas or mantras, or on the deities, or their forms. He advises against engaging in Yogic practices or incantations. I think that Abhishiktananda would be surprised by these statements. He was seeking the wrong goal, at least according to Ramana. I believe that Abhishiktananda did achieve sahaja samadhi, where one sees God or Brahman within everything. And that is what is important.

Jim: Why do you think that Abhishiktananda sought to achieve nirvikalpa samadhi when Ramana advised against it?

Glenn: Well, I am not sure that Abhishiktananda was aware of these views of Ramana. The traditional account of Ramana’s enlightenment is that he was enlightened when he went into a trance as a teenager. When Abhishiktananda first saw Ramana, he was disappointed, because Ramana was not meditating. Instead, Ramana reminded him of his grandfather, reading a newspaper. Ramana was obviously not in a state of trance. So Abhishiktananda visited Ramana with some preconceptions, which he obtained from articles of Olivier Lacombe that he had read while still in France. Another reason for Abhishiktananda’s emphasis on meditation is the influence of Gnanananda. In contrast to Ramana, Gnanananda did emphasize the importance of meditation.

Jim: Have there been any changes to your views since completing your thesis?

Glenn: Yes, of course. One direction has taken me into a deeper examination of Ramana Maharshi. And I have come to see how Ramana’s own story needs to be reinterpreted, based on what he himself says. One area that requires change is this distinction between nirvikalpa and sahaja samadhi. It is said that Ramana achieved liberation as a 16-year-old boy when he went into trance. But that story cannot be reconciled with Ramana’s own later teachings repudiating trance and meditation as methods of enlightenment. Furthermore, Ramana’s enlightenment has been regarded as being immediate during this experience. But this does not sufficiently take into account Ramana’s study and of books like the Yoga Vasistha and the Vivekacudamani. Ramana studied these books and translated the Vivekacudamani while living in the caves of Arunachala. It must be remembered that Ramana lived in these caves for about 20 years prior to the ashram developing around him. That occurred only after Ramana’s mother died, and Ramana moved down from the mountain to be near her tomb.

Jim: Is there anything else that you think needs to be looked at in relation to Ramana’s story?

Glenn: Yes, although scholars like T.M.P. Mahadevan have interpreted Ramana as a strict advaitin in the tradition of Shankara, Ramana was influenced by tantric traditions, by Kashmir saivism, and by Western thought. Ramana’s idea of living liberation or jivanmukti, is by no means universal in Hinduism. Traditional Hinduism believes that liberation is attained only in death. His idea of the world as having a relative reality may also be seen as tantric, although he was also influenced here by Christian sources. And so we must ask, "Where did Ramana obtain his tantric sources?" I have already mentioned Ramana’s study of various books. But an important influence that has hardly been explored is that of Ganapati Sastri, who was the first person to call Ramana the ‘Maharshi.’ Ganapati Sastri was a Sanskrit scholar; he wrote a book in Sanskrit in praise of Ramana that he called the Ramana Gita. Ganapati Sastri had a disciple Kapali Sastri, whom he introduced to Ramana in 1911. Kapali wrote an introduction to Ganapati’s commentary on Ramana’s "Forty Verses." Kapali himself was a Vedic scholar, and later became a disciple of Aurobindo. Aurobindo combined tantric ideas with Western philosophy. Both Ganapati and Kapali had an influence on Ramana.

Jim: Were there Christian influences on Ramana Maharshi?

Glenn: Yes. As a boy, he went to a Christian missionary school. Ramana frequently quotes from the Bible. And his first biography is filled with Biblical quotations, comparing Ramana to Christ. This biography was written prior to Paul Brunton making Ramana known to the West by his book A Search in Secret India.

Jim: Were there other Western influences on Ramana Maharshi?

Glenn: Yes. Brunton himself influenced Ramana. Ramana recommended Brunton’s books even to Indians wanting to learn more. A little known fact is that Brunton himself strongly criticized Ramana in his subsequent books. But my point is that to some extent Ramana interpreted himself in Western terms. As proof for his idea of the centrality of the heart, Ramana referred to a Western psychological journal. So in many ways, Ramana was not the traditionalist that he is often made out to be. He fits more within what Paul Hacker called "neo-Hinduism"– Hinduism that has been influenced by the West. I think that that would have been shocking news for Abhishiktananda, who regarded Ramana as so thoroughly Indian.

Jim: Is there a way that Abhishiktananda could have made his path easier?

Glenn: Abhishiktananda tried to interpret his Christian beliefs in terms of advaita. And Abhishiktananda made the important observation that ‘advaita’ means "not-two," and that it does not mean "only one." In other words, advaita is not monism. This allows a distinction between God and created reality while yet affirming their unity. What Abhishiktananda does not acknowledge is that to regard advaita in this way may itself be a form of neo-Hinduism. As I have shown in my thesis, Abhishiktananda relied strongly on the book by Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West, where this same view of advaita is stated. And yet Abhishiktananda does sometimes put forward a very monistic view, emphasizing the kevala or alone-ness. It would have been easier for Abhishiktananda to make his comparisons with vishishtadvaita, or qualified nondualism, a tradition that allows for a distinction between God as the Beloved and the creature as the one who adores, despite their unity. Abhishiktananda was aware of the tradition, but rejected it as too dualistic. Perhaps his opinion regarding vishishtadvaita needs to be re-examined.

Jim: If Ramana did not recommend trance and meditation as a means to enlightenment, how are we to interpret his doctrine of Self-Enquiry?

Glenn: We need to distinguish Ramana’s method of Self-Enquiry both from that of the trance of nirvikalpa samadhi as well as from the western kind of self-enquiry dating from Descartes’ cogito. And that will bring us again to this difficult issue of relating our theory to our religious experience. I like what J.L. Mehta says about this, that Indians cannot avoid the Europeanization of the earth. They have to go "through it." And I believe that this is a philosophical task. I think that some of Jules Monchanin’s writings are helpful exploring the issues. Unfortunately, Monchanin did not write very much, and he did not emphasize enough the experience of our heart. But the collection of his work in Mystique de l’Inde, mystère chrétien has some very important points, including some criticism of Abhishiktananda.

Jim: Have you looked at how Ramana’s Self-Enquiry can relate to our views of theory?

Glenn: Yes, after I completed my doctorate, I went back to look at the Christian philosophy that I studied in Amsterdam thirty years ago. I was surprised to be able to see it in a way that made sense of why I had been attracted to it in the first place. This new insight involved exactly this question of how the central experience of our heart relates to our experience within time, including our theoretical thought within time. On my website, I have shown how I believe that the Christian philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd can be interpreted in a nondual way that makes sense of both. I believe that this is what he originally meant, but his philosophy has not been properly understood. This has driven me to explore Dooyeweerd’s own sources, which have not been examined. I believe that they ultimately lead back to our own Western mystical tradition. [http://www.members.shaw.ca/jgfriesen/Mainheadings/Dooyeweerd.html]

I was at one time critical of the way that C.G. Jung had a chance to visit Ramana in India in 1948, but chose to ignore him and to return to the study of western mysticism and alchemy. Perhaps I am now doing the same thing. Although I have my own criticism of some of Jung’s ideas, I believe that he was correct that our own tradition has riches that speak to us in ways that perhaps the Hindu traditions never can. I believe that my acquaintance with Hindu nondualism has allowed me to see what Dooyeweerd intended. And for that I continue to most grateful for my study of Abhishiktananda. The title given to his diary, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart expresses in such a beautiful way our need to descend to our ground, to go within our heart to our center. But I then interpret the ascent as the need for us to then move out from that center into the temporal world, as one who is liberated within this life, in order to help redeem the world, a world that is out, from and towards God, and which has meaning and existence only in relation to Him.

Jim: Do you think that Abhishiktananda was ultimately successful in bridging Christianity and Hindu advaita?

Glenn: Abhishiktananda’s work is valuable in showing us some of the dualisms in Christian thinking, and in challenging us to overcome them. For example, the dualism between nature and grace. Or the dualism when we regard God’s creation "out of nothing" in a way that distances us from God, as if the ‘nothing’ refers to something alongside of God, instead of being an expression of our dependence on Him. To the extent that Abhishiktananda helps us to appreciate that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, then I think that he is helpful. And his explorations of the Trinity in Saccidananda are also very helpful, particularly when we combine this with some of Monchanin’s criticism.

Jim: Where else do you see that he is not helpful?

Glenn: Well, I regard the ideas of creation, fall and redemption in Christ to be central to Christianity. In some of his writings, Abhishiktananda has reinterpreted these ideas to where they are no longer recognizable as Christian. His strong emphasis on acosmism tends to undermine the importance of creation. His view that we only have to realize our oneness with God tends to undermine the ontological reality of the fall into sin. For me, the fall is not just a matter of ignorance, and of not knowing our true selfhood. It does have that effect. But it is more. It is an act of the will that has changed our relation to God, creation and to others. And Abhishiktananda’s view of redemption tends to devalue the work of Christ, as well as our own work where we help to redeem the world for and in Christ. He says that Christ’s uniqueness is true within the Christian myth itself, but of no special weight as against other myths.

Jim: Won’t some people say that you have returned to a Christian apologetic that wants to again set up Christianity as the truth over other religions?

Glenn: Well of course some people will say that. Other people say that I am still interpreting Christianity in terms of Hinduism. I am not responsible for how other people think or react. I can only say that, in large part through my studies of Abhishiktananda, I have learned to see Christianity differently, and I know that it is true. This knowing is more than an intellectual acceptance of what Abhishiktananda called "petrified" and "idolatrous" dogma. And this is not to say that God cannot also reveal Himself in other religions. But it seems to me that Christianity does have a distinct emphasis on love as self-giving, following the model of Christ’s kenosis. And this has practical consequences. We must ask why it was that it was a Western friend who came to the aid of Abhishiktananda as he was lying in the street of Rishikesh after his heart attack.

Jim: Are you saying that it is only the Christian West that has such a view?

Glenn: Christ has taught us not to see suffering as the fault of someone’s karma; instead, we reach out in compassion. If we find such compassion among adherents of other religions, then that is something that we can only be grateful for. Perhaps it is not of much value to try to determine where the idea of compassion comes from, and whether neo-Hinduism, which also emphasizes such caring within the world, was modeled on Christian missionary institutions, or whether the Buddhist idea of the bodhisattva has any parallels. The point is that we are to develop compassion within ourselves. And that involves sahaja samadhi, seeing God everywhere – within others, the world and ourselves.