Dilatato Corde 1:2
July - December, 2011
Buddhist prayer flags in Himachal Pradesh
Buddhist prayer flags in Himachal Pradesh



I have lived in India for the last forty-four years and have had many occasions to experience interreligious meetings. I do not mean organized conferences, which are often artificial and do not lead very far, but true, spontaneous human and spiritual encounters. In my case it was mostly a dialogue with Hindus,  also inspired by my great masters, Swami Abhishiktananda and Raimon Panikkar.


But these last two months have been such an extraordinary occasion for deep and consciously lived interreligious experiences that I will attempt to describe them and reflect on their implications.


It all started in a traditional church in the Austrian countryside on a very traditional Catholic feast: the Assumption of Mary, celebrated on August 15. That village and its parish priest were connected to my family’s history. My mother was Jewish, and because of the persecution of Jews by Hitler and the Nazis, my family had to flee from Salzburg. We took take refuge in a Catholic parish whose priest was openly anti-Nazi, he became our protector and saviour. Just this year he was named by the government of Israel as one of the “Just of the Nations.”


The village I visited in August was the birthplace of this courageous and selfless priest, and many of his relatives are still living there. So this village, as well as the one where he hid me and my family during the Second World War, were being honoured, and the parish priest asked me to deliver the sermon on the feast of the Assumption! In addition to remembering the priest who had saved our lives and expressing my gratitude to him, I could not help establishing a connection between Mary, bodily assumed into heaven, and the Hindu Goddess—her role in defeating the demons, her embodying Wisdom (Sophia), and the feasts dedicated to her. It was surely the first—and probably the last—time that the Hindu Goddess entered that congregation of traditional Catholics!


On my return to India, I had a very special task to perform. For the last few years I have been giving retreats and seminars at a Buddhist center in Himachal Pradesh whose spiritual director is a high lama and rinpoche. He is also the head of a monastic college, where about 700 Tibetan monks are studying their tradition to earn the academic degree of Khenpo (comparable to Master of Theology). This rinpoche asked me to deliver some lectures to his monks on, what he called “Hindu Tantra.” This was one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced, greater than lecturing at a University!


After preparing these lectures I went to Kashmir for another dialogue: A group of “The Global Peace Initiative of Women,” initiated and directed by Dena Merriam, had already conducted a series of “Sufi-Yogi-Dialogues” in different countries. Since Kashmir has a strong Sufi tradition as well as the tradition of the so-called Kashmir Shaivism, with its high spirituality and philosophy, such a dialogue was to take place in Srinagar. A Muslim professor of philosophy, a close friend, was the local organizer of the dialogue. I was asked to speak on Kashmir Shaivism. The two-day event on the topic “The Consciousness of Oneness and Social Transformation” took place in ashrams of the Ramakrishna Mission, whose members are very open to dialogue. Some of the Sufis were young and dynamic, and the dialogues were generally very lively. It was an important meeting covering a number of burning questions. Let me quote an excerpt from the report prepared by Kavita Byrd, which will be published in full on the organization’s website:


At a certain point, the growing evolution of our own inner perception demands and necessitates the complement and synergy of outer perspective and action for its own continuance. The ability to accommodate and embrace complexity, the coincidence of opposites—which can otherwise tear apart peoples, cultures and our own psyche—is itself a hallmark of the higher stage of consciousness being demanded in our evolution today. At the practical level this is being reinforced, in no uncertain terms, as an ultimatum from nature itself today: our choice is either to evolve—in other words stretch ourselves to accommodate and reconcile seeming differences and divisions, breaking the barriers of mere mental perception and achieving a higher vision of unity—or to go extinct. We are being forcibly propelled to a higher level in our evolution.


One thing all agreed upon was that no true mystic divorces himself or herself from the social reality, but acts upon it, in subtler—by dint of their higher frequency—and often more manifest ways. There may be times of physical withdrawal, but even then a force is being generated which has its effect on the larger collective domain. Today in particular the need to translate deeper mystical realization into action at the collective level is critical to the world’s very survival—an urgency which perhaps drove the passion so tangibly felt in this dialogue, to move beyond a debate over differences and on to united action.


The conjunction between deep inner spiritual realization and social transformation is not a new one. The great traditions that grew on Kshmiri soil—Sufism, Kashmiri Shaivism and Buddhism—all challenged the social and religious conventions of their times, and in many cases reformed or transformed them. Today we must bring this conjunction of inner spirit and outer culture to a whole new level, going to the deepest interspiritual truths and applying them in the widest global context. For this, the model and inspiration of the great mystics stand as shining examples that can help light our way.


Due to shortage of time,  we could not experience the more contemplative side of a spiritual dialogue, a sharing of prayer and silence. But some goals were certainly achieved:  becoming more conscious of the burning questions all spiritual traditions have to face today; overcoming a number of prejudices of the two communities; and establishing friendship among the participants—not a small achievement, given the short span of time and considering the long-standing tension between Muslims and Hindus in this beautiful and troubled land.


The Sufi-Yogī dialogue was only one of the reasons for my visit to Kashmir. It was, as always, a pilgrimage to the sacred Hindu and Buddhist sites that have great historical and spiritual significance. The special occasion was a great fire sacrifice (yajña) in memory of the samādhi of the last Master of Kashmir Shaivism, Swami Lakshman Joo, twenty years after his passing (in 1991). It was mostly his disciples and devotees who attended this day-long sacrifice. The Muslim Professor was eager to attend this spiritual event, but it seems that some of the group did not allow him. I pleaded with the oldest lady disciple, and he was invited. His devout participation was a moment of a true Hindu-Muslim unity. I was reminded of His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying that one of the important ways of a living interreligious dialogue is to participate in each other’s festivals and rituals.


Not far from the ashram of my Guru, in whose region, tradition says, lived the great mystic and philosopher Abhinavagupta in the tenth century, are the ruins of Buddhist monasteries dating from the second to the fifth centuries, situated on a splendid mountain slope with a view of the valley and its Dal Lake on the one side, and the Mahadeva Mountain on the other, the latter sacred to the Shaivas. It is lonely and an ideal place for meditation. Though meditation has no religion, it is a place for a profound meeting between the different traditions that I was in communion with during this pilgrimage: Buddhist, Shaiva and Sufi-Muslim. (I may add Christian in my case.) A meditation that touches the root of our existence is like a melting pot of the different “names-and-forms” we give to the Absolute Mystery.


What better preparation could there be for the challenge awaiting me in the active Buddhist monastery in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, not very far from the abode of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


It is difficult to describe the atmosphere in which I lectured to about fifty monks and a number of Indians and foreigners: I, the only woman, of Christian background and with a Shaiva tradition (both being theistic), speaking to Lamas who were well-trained and steeped in their own tradition, but, as one could see from their faces, eager to hear what I had to say. These monks are highly knowledgeable in their Buddhist tradition, and about twenty or so of my “students” were incarnate high Lamas (Tulkus). So my lectures were not just an academic exercise, but had to be rooted in my experience.


Their questions were straightforward and sincere, and sometimes challenging. In spite of the linguistic obstacles—the Rinpoche had to translate my lectures into Tibetan for the majority, who do not know English—we were able to hold a dialogue that went beyond our respective concepts, as the contact established showed. The chapter was not closed (“You believe in God; we believe in emptiness”…) but remained open: they want me to come back!


The dialogue was not over, The Center where I teach (Deer Park Institute) had organized a conference on traditional views of education, under the direction of Ven. Samdhong Rinpoche, the former Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The participants were Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and followers of twentieth century masters (Gandhi, Krishnamurty, Aurobindo) participated; this time there were no Christians or Muslims. It was another occasion for sharing concerns about the educational system in India and emphasizing the values that are embodied in the traditions represented. This time it was a bit more academic, but I was still full of the existential exposure and spiritual depth of those earlier encounters that embraced five religions—a rich and transformative experience.

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