Is Bi-religiosity Possible?
(+comment about Le Saux)
We have long known that it is impossible to make a perfectly accurate translation of a text from another spiritual tradition. It would be an unbelievable coincidence if a Chinese spiritual master—to give just one example—would use the same religious terminology when speaking of the spiritual world as would a French spiritual writer. What does the “soul” of an ancestor or a “deity” mean to the Chinese? If they speak of “souls” or “deities,” should we—can we—use the same words they do?
The rural Thai Buddhist believes that the Buddha was a god in his previous existence. In his last reincarnation he had to become a man once again in order to gain salvation. To understand the multiple meanings of this simple story drawn from Theravada mythology, we would have to enter into the symbolic universe of the Thai people, a universe in which it would soon become obvious that they do not understand the same thing we do when we refer to “the deity.”
To ask if the Buddha was an atheist or an agnostic (according to our Western semantic conventions) is meaningless. The Buddha died long before these Judeo-Christian concepts were being used to make such distinctions. In the symbolic universe of the Buddha, there simply is no deity in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term. To ask if the Buddha was an atheist or an agnostic is like asking a Chinese peasant—who has never drunk anything other than water or fruit juice—if he prefers Bordeaux to Burgundy. The question is absurd. In fact, it is more than absurd; it is completely meaningless. It is like asking for the square root of a coconut tree. You cannot mix up the pieces of two different puzzles!
When I speculate on the meaning of “God” from my position within the Judeo-Christian tradition, I do so relying on a body of symbols that “wedges” God into a well-structured symbolic universe. The God about whom I reflect stands in a particular relationship to creation (creator or observer), to rapport with humans (personal or impersonal), to speculative affirmations (existence or non-existence), to power (almighty or suffering) to morality (judge or redeemer), etc. According to the Theravada School, the Buddha never used this kind of symbolic map to determine what a deity is and is not.
It is always possible to cheat of course, to act “as if” the realities (symbols) veiled by words were identical. We all do that our whole life long for purely pragmatic reasons. Luckily for us, language seems to be naturally disposed to make little allowances for semantic conventions, without thereby undermining the possibility of communicating. But as soon as I want to engage in a more precise analysis at the point where cultures intersect—which is the case for those who are involved in interreligious dialogue—I have to be on guard.
Those who do not go deeply into a new way of sorting out the spiritual cosmos (a new symbolic order) but who limit themselves to learning a new language while continuing to stay in the ghetto of embassies or international hotels, can too easily believe that they are going deeply into a new religion, when, in fact, they are simply using—or is it abusing?—the elasticity inherent in all semantic conventions. They are surreptitiously refusing to abide by the symbolic rules of the other religion that would guarantee the reliability of their analyses. Instead, they wander around, distancing themselves from their native surroundings without ever really entering into another culture and religion. What has disdainfully been called “spiritual tourism” is characterized by quid pro quos around such words as “reincarnation,” “desire,” or “compassion.”
A trans-cultural religious interchange between, for example, a Western monotheistic religion and Buddhism runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an amalgam of misunderstandings. An intra-cultural religious exchange, on the other hand—one monotheistic Western religion with another—is better protected from this confusion and has a greater chance of being a real spiritual exchange. The reason is simple: in an intra-cultural exchange, the symbols used to sort out the spiritual cosmos are not called into question. In their debates with one another, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews and atheists employ symbols that are virtually identical. The questions raised in these exchanges are questions about choices and “truth,” about commitment rather than about symbolic borders.
In discussions among Christians, Muslim, and Jews, for example, one believes or doesn't believe in the incarnation, believes or doesn't believe in the Trinity, believes or doesn't believe in the linguistic legibility ( logos ) of the relationship between God and the believer, believes or doesn't believe in God. My interlocutor and I are basically in agreement about the meaning we will give to such words as “flesh,” “deity,” and “unity.” Even if it is true that our words do not mean exactly the same thing, we understand one another. Since we are dealing with commitments that are fundamentally irreconcilable, one of the goals of intra-cultural dialogue is peaceful “cohabitation,” even if that is not always made explicit.
By contrast, the issues raised by trans-cultural migration call into question the symbols we use to make distinctions in the spiritual cosmos. In trans-cultural religious migration, the proselyte has to begin by addressing issues that precede questions of commitment. He/she must first come to some kind of symbolic synchronization before it is possible to consider an array of possible new religious commitments. It is only after entering the realm of a new symbolic order that one can conceive of a new religious allegiance, that is, that one can consider adopting a new set of symbols that respond to questions that could not even have been conceived of in one's previous theological culture.
In brief, there are two different kinds of interreligious dialogue. On one hand there is the dialogue of religions that have different symbol systems, and, on the other, the dialogue of religions that adhere to the same system of symbols, but make different choices within that system. Typically, ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics as well as dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Jews, or Christians and atheists is of the second kind, while dialogue between Christians and Buddhists or atheists and Buddhists is of the first kind.
The first thing that happens in trans-cultural dialogue is that my present spiritual commitments are clarified without necessarily being replaced by new choices. For instance, dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity may force me as a Christian to recognize how much my use of the word “God” is hamstrung by contingent conventions and prejudices that I was simply unaware of. As a result, I am led to a deeper investigation of my faith, but I do not see my faith as being in competition with Buddhism, becaue “god” in Buddhism is another affair.
The fact that the one I call “God” emerges from an elective division of the cosmos does not mean that God is any less real or present! To say that would be to betray a very poor understanding of symbol. It must be made very clear that even if it is my consciousness that has established the contours of the Judeo-Christian God (to enable me even to speak of God!), I still have to take a position about the existence or non-existence of God. Speculation about existence or non-existence comes after the partitioning of spiritual cosmos into multiple symbols. My cultural identity is founded on symbols more than on the answers to questions that symbols pose to my intellect. Once a symbol comes into being, it exists forever because it is inevitably operative in my consciousness.
It should be clear that the universalism of a religion that lays claim to a God thus understood is not incompatible with the universalism of a religion that would be based on a different symbolic partitioning of the spiritual cosmos.
Trans-cultural Interreligious dialogue (a “Religion of the Book” with another religion) is about discoveries rather than choices or commitments. It exposes an otherness as well as my own identity before it undertakes a search for truth. It invites me to make a more minute symbolic partitioning of the cosmos whereas, to put it bluntly, dialogue of the second kind only gives fleeting attention to the contingency of this symbolic partitioning and focuses its attention on intellectual concerns about relations between one's own actual symbols and commitment.
In light of the difficulty of symbolic (and therefore, linguistic) synchronization, it should not be surprising that great spiritual masters counsel against trans-cultural conversion and call instead for deeper fidelity to one's own symbolic universe. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is an excellent proponent of Lamaism, but he advises against converting to Buddhism. To an Englishman who converted to Lamaism and suffered from depression, the Dalai Lama offered a Bible, advising him to return to the spiritual tradition that had grown up in.
There are many Muslims in France. This is not the result of missionary activity but of historical factors that go well beyond the realm of spirituality. The purpose of intra-cultural dialogue between Catholic and Sunnis or atheists and Sunnis—an intra-cultural dialogue, since it takes place within the same symbolic order—is first and foremost for the purpose of enabling peaceful “cohabitation.” We have to avoid the violence that characterized the cohabitation of Protestants and Catholics in the past.
Interreligious dialogue often takes a much different (and more interesting) turn when it decides to face head on the question of trans-cultural conversion, for instance, from Christianity to Buddhism, or to different forms of shamanism, or to Hinduism—or vice versa. Concentrated efforts to separate the symbolic from the linguistic stratum can well lead one to discover something for which no word exists in classical intra-cultural ecumenical research, namely, the kind that involves Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Sunni, Shi‘a, atheists, etc.
If I, a Christian (or an atheist), not only make a real effort to learn an Asian language (Tibetan for example) but also try to live within the symbolic universe of a culture that has nothing in common with mine (by making a multi-year retreat in a Tibetan monastery for example), I will come to realize that the “clothing” provided by my Christianity (or my atheism) is of no use whatsoever! I will see that the “Western Mind” and the “Eastern Mind” are as different as chalk and cheese.
After being cloistered for a few years in my Tibetan monastery, I will be forced to admit that, from a Buddhist perspective, to be a Christian or to be an atheist is almost the same thing. After endless hours of sitting lotus, the day will certainly come when it will not be the East as much as my native West that will intrigue me. I will be able to look at it and at myself in the light of a new way of partitioning the cosmos into distinct entities. Up to that point, because of my limited perspective, I could allow myself to confuse words and symbols, but that is no longer possible.
Those who take travel seriously know that it induces a profound change in self-awareness. Real travel is a voyage of self-discovery, an invitation to take a critical look at the symbolic order that shaped one's consciousness prior to embarking. Trans-cultural dialogue is this kind of travel. Christians who intend to enter into such dialogue must first “pay for” the symbols of the other religions in order to recognize what is specific to their own spiritual universe (which is never chosen, but only discovered).
To go from one symbolic universe to another does not mean that the old is lost. Actually, it is impossible to lose the old! If I originally used a slicer that makes square pieces to cut up the big cosmic cake in the West, and then cut it up a second time in the East, using a slicer that makes round pieces, the first symbols—which I had always thought of as primordial—are going to be cut up into new and strangely shaped sub-symbols that can be used to construct the symbols of both Christianity and Buddhism. One thing, at least, is sure: having done this double cutting of the cosmic cake, my future speculation will be able to draw on more symbols than were previously available to me! But if I am to use the old words of my symbolic universe in the framework of dialogue, I will have to be as cautious as a fox and as clever as a monkey, lest I become like some yingyanging devotee who finds “energy” and “reincarnation” everywhere.
Let us remain for a bit with the “peculiarities” of Buddhism.
The word “desire” is fundamental in Buddhism. But the desire of Buddhists does not evoke the same set of symbols that are associated with this word in the Judeo-Christian world. So, to me, a Western lambda, it seems like a contraction for Buddhists to say that they “desire” to eliminate all desire. Then, I begin to practice Buddhist meditation. In the second chapter of his sermon on meditation (the Maha Satipathana Sutta ), the Buddha recommends contemplation of vedanā. (I should note that the Buddha begins by giving a clear explanation of vedanā , probably because the meaning of the word is ambiguous in Pali/Sanskrit. In terms of philology, “Feeling” or “sensation” may be a correct English translation of vedanā philologically speaking, but hermeneutically speaking, they do not represent what the Buddha meant by vedanā. ) Finally, after few years of practice, I understand that what we in the West call “desire” designates three different things for the Buddhist: 1) vedanā ; 2) craving something for the future; 3) will. Because of the East's subdivision of “desire,” I can no longer say that there is a contradiction in “desiring to abolish desire.” At least on this point I have gained and insight that allows me to analyze both Buddhism and Christianity.
Simply stated (perhaps too simply), for two and a half millennia Buddhists have clearly distinguished between vedanā (the feeling of affinity, indifference, or spontaneous repulsion that is ours at every moment), “desire” (a plan for the future springing from the memory of a particular vedanā ), and “good will” (a plan for the future guided by insight— vipassana —and not by vedanā ).
For the Buddhists, consideration of vedanā is part and parcel of their everyday practice, whereas Westerners only started to take it seriously when neurologists began investigating the function of the limbic system in the brain. Post-Freudian psychologists also became interested in it. As for Freud, he confused the three symbols. To put it bluntly, Freud never recognized the clear categorical separation between desire, will, and the “feelings” of sympathy, repulsion or indifference that are produced spontaneously and instantaneously by the limbic system. For Freud, will and “feeling” (the Buddhist vedanā ) are to be counted among our other desires and therefore also lie within the realm of the sexual.
The ultimate ideal of Buddhism, namely, the abolition of all desire, is not itself a “desire” in the Western sense of the word, but rather the result of insight ( vipassana ) obtained through meditation, which involves the work of distinguishing between vedanā and what the West calls desire. If I can manage to make my way in a symbolic universe that does not confuse “desire” with what the Buddhists call vedanā or will, the paradox of “desiring” not to desire fades away. In Asian cultures, my clumsy expression, “desire not to desire,” would probably be expressed by something like “aspire to cease desiring.” “Aspiration” would here be understood to mean a kind of “non-desiring will,” which is actually a kind of insight.
One could approach the important questions of reincarnation, of death, of sin, etc. in much the same way. Fortunately, the West will not always find itself in an inferior position vis-à-vis the East with regard to its symbolic treasury. For dealing with some areas of the spiritual cosmos—for example otherness and relationship—I believe that the West can draw on a more extensive repertory of symbols than is available in the East.
Addendum: The Case of Le Saux
From what has been said, it follows that one who engages in a more and more refined symbolic division of the spiritual cosmos may conclude that there is no contradiction in being both Christian and Buddhist or Christian and Hindu. This level of consciousness is born of a passion for otherness and a level of spiritual evolution that is quite rare. We might think of such individuals as Le Saux, Panikkar, Krishnamurti. . . .
The existence of a Le Saux for example, who referred to himself as both Christian and Hindu, seems all the more paradoxical, given that it is impossible to be both Catholic and Protestant without giving up some commitments that are specific to Catholicism or Protestantism. But whereas “Intra-cultural” religious conversion means a choice for one religion or the other, “extra-cultural” conversion need not involve such a choice if the person has succeeded in recognizing and understanding the breadth of symbolic differences and has created a third symbolic partitioning that offers a way of dwelling within two different symbolic universes.
It used to be said that the magnitude of the “metaphysical” differences between East and West (polytheism, karma, non-duality) made the two religious worlds totally incompatible. But such an observation does not take sufficient account of the magnitude of symbolic (and thus semantic) differences. It must now be admitted that just the opposite is true! The more one becomes aware of these differences, the less possible it is for a religion of one symbolic universe to be seen as contradicting a religion of another symbolic universe! If one does a good job of separating words and symbols (establishing the difference between the symbolic and the linguistic layers), it will be seen that even the universalist claim of one religion need not be incompatible with the universalist claim of another religion, provided that they belong to two different symbolic universes.
To be both Muslim and Christian or Jewish and Christian is impossible because each of these religions demands commitments and renunciations that are incompatible with the commitments and renunciations demanded by the others. The reason they are incompatible is because these commitments and renunciations are formulated in relatively identical symbolic universes. When there is agreement about the definition of the deity and of the flesh, we cannot simultaneously accept and reject God's incarnation. You can't have it both ways.
On the other hand, no one can say with the same level of assurance that it is impossible to be simultaneously Buddhist and Christian is (even though both religions claim universality). Since these two religions are rooted in different sets of symbols, the commitments they involve are not incompatible.
One way of understanding the “assumed paradox” and non-contradiction of the bi-religiosity of a Le Saux is by a comparison with the different perspectives of neurology and psychology. A neurologist might say that the suicide of a depressed person was caused by a lack of serotonin or endorphin or some other substance in the brain. And the neurologist is probably right! A psychologist might say that the person's suicide was provoked by the depression that overcame him after the death of his wife, or by the loss of his job, etc. And the psychologist is probably right!
We can leave it to scientific researchers to explain why the death of a spouse can sometimes provoke a decrease of serotonin, why the decrease of serotonin can sometimes cause depression, why a hormone or a neurotransmitter must remain a distinct symbolic entity of a symptom, etc. Research into a possible third symbolic order that would explain the differences between the neurological approach and the psychological approach is being carried out, but there is still a long way to go before neurology becomes psychology! On the other hand, a physician can be both a neurologist and a psychologist to the degree that he realizes that he has to think differently, depending on which hat he is wearing. His medical formation allows him to make use of two distinct symbolic paradigms. It is quite possible that between Buddhism and Christianity there can be the same kind of crossover.
To put it in another way, if I were to compare the conversation between a Christian and a Muslim to the conversation between an impressionist painter and a surrealist painter, then the conversation between a Buddhist and a Christian would have to be compared to the conversation between a painter and an architect. Painters know that they cannot be both impressionists and surrealists without becoming schizophrenic. But nothing prevents an artist from being both a painter and an architect! Just as Michelangelo was both painter and architect, so Le Saux was both Hindu and Christian. Providence sometimes sends us such prophets.
It can happen that a Buddhist, through prolonged contact with Western ways of thinking, eventually grasps the meaning of God in the Judeo/Christian tradition. This God may still remain part of a universe that has been unaffected by the symbolic network that organizes Buddhism, but it is also possible that a new set of symbols will crystallize around this first symbol and form an image sufficiently sophisticated to allow this Buddhist to become a Christian (or atheist) without ceasing to be a Buddhist.
It is still true that in order intellectually to unify these two religious spheres perfectly and to discover the algorithms that make it possible to move from one to the other, many more symbolic elements need to be fashioned and assembled. Scientists who want to unify psychology and neurology or quantum theories and continuum theories face similar “insurmountable” difficulties.
But unless the contrary can be proven, it would seem that an overall unification of spirituality is not impossible. At present, all we have is a kind of intuition (as we do about the hidden unity between neurology and psychology), a kind of hope that animates dialogue and in a more general way the spiritual growth of each religious sphere, even if we cannot be sure of the final outcome of this endeavor.
This strong intuition of a spiritual unity is reinforced by observing the spiritual “complicities” that otherwise would seem overly strange. A Westerner who lives in a Buddhist country and observes bonzes chanting and engaging in theological disputations, who witnesses the pious rituals of ordinary Buddhists and the ascetic practices of Buddhist monks, would never dare to say that Buddhism is an atheistic philosophy rather than a religion, as some Judeo-Christian writers would lead us to believe! One and the same spiritual search can be guided by different symbols! That was the case for Le Saux—and Le Saux was not a charlatan.
Putting Buddhism in competition with Christianity is like putting neurology in competition with psychology. To do so is a sign of ignorance and spiritual immaturity. The prowess, genius, and holiness of a Le Saux is not to be found in his determination to defy and sublimate go beyond paradoxes, but in his coming to understand that, in the last analysis, such paradoxes do not exist.
It is possible that the Saux chose to make certain commitments within the new symbolic order that he was coming to recognize, for instance, his decision to follow a Hindu rather than a Buddhist way—though toward the end of his life he did feel a certain attraction to Buddhism. But he did not regard his commitment to Hinduism as incompatible with his commitment to Catholicism. Who are we to say that he was mistaken?
paul yves wery - Chiangmai - December 2011
Version 1.2 (cf. DIMMID) September 2012