“My bishop said to me...” began the Tibetan monk – or ‘gelong’ or ‘lama’. I didn't catch what the bishop had said, because I immediately fell to wondering why Tibetan Buddhists were following the example of one Zen group in the West who translated their own monastic titles into ‘Christian’ language, converting their roshis, for example, to bishops! (But they wisely changed back.) Why should they burden themselves with our history...? But I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. In a moment I realised that the monk was talking about a Catholic bishop in the Vatican who was sponsoring his studies in Rome. “My bishop.” It was in keeping with his general outlook: he was embracing everything!
He was in Rome to study Christian philosophy and spirituality. There are better places in which to do that, but he was embracing Rome at the moment, and who knows how they might benefit each other? The hardest concept for him was ‘God’. But there is something in Buddhism, he told me, that is beyond karma, and he was beginning to study how it might relate to what Christians call ‘God’. He loved St John of the Cross. But some philosophy professors were a puzzle to him, especially the one who said that reincarnation, “while being philosophically possible, was theologically unacceptable.” This sort of distinction made no sense at all to the monk. I suggested that philosophy frequently seems a foreign body to Christians: it was there at the birth of the Christian faith, already an adult, and it often appears to be either coming from elsewhere or leaving in rebellion, unhappy to stay except for brief periods or in unexciting places. Buddhist philosophy, he said, is different: it arises out of Buddhist meditation and is therefore never foreign to it. Our history is different. Perhaps what Buddhists call philosophy Christians call theology. But this genial monk, loved by everyone he met, was now experiencing the dismay of meeting a truly ‘other’ mental world.
Double truth, duplex veritas, was a device used by some Christian thinkers in the thirteenth century to preserve their own religious identity while agreeing with Aristotle, whose works (written more than fifteen centuries before) were only then becoming available to them in full. It was a lazy position to adopt, a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. It was no better than the other two lazy positions adopted by other groups: total rejection, and total acceptance. The fourth position, that of St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas, was the only one that involved hard work, the laborious study of strange texts in poor translations, the stitching and unstitching of thoughts, the immense effort to include the ‘other’, transforming it and being transformed by it.
To say that Buddhists are atheists (as some Christians have said) is like saying that Christians worship three Gods: the statements are at about the same level of comprehension. We need to listen to what they say – and try to listen to what they do not say, or cannot say in language intelligible to us – rather than deliver ready-made verdicts on them. Many Christians think of God as an object (a very big one), forgetting that God is not encompassed by any of our concepts: neither ‘object’, nor ‘subject’, nor ‘person’, nor ‘one’, nor ‘three’.... God is transcendent. “We cannot grasp what God is, but only what God is not,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas. “In Christ, “ he added, “we are joined to God as to the unknown,”. Of course there are other things too that we say about God, but this stands. All of this is unsatisfactory to people who have a passion for clarity, but that is a passion that reality has no obligation to satisfy. Thomas was renowned for clarity, but there is a false kind of clarity for which you don't need a head but only a neck.
“...To God as to the unknown,” tamquam ignoto. It has been called ‘Christian agnosticism’: “Father, holy be your name.” Holy, kadosh, means ‘separate’, ‘wholly other’; we cannot soil or spoil God; indeed, we would if we could. If the Tibetan monk is struggling to understand what Christians mean when they say ‘God’, we can keep him company. It does not mean that we are in the same position: ‘Christian agnosticism’ is embedded in a different mental world, a different religion, a different way of life. But we can stop talking as if we had God in our pocket. Religion is before all else a way of living. Thinking and talking are parts of it, but they can never become the whole. Thoughts, however clear, do not convey the very pith of a lived life: not because they are somehow defective, but because they are not the whole of life.
I sighted him again in town one evening: a younger version of the Dalai Lama, striding eagerly through the Roman rush-hour, going perhaps to visit his bishop. He was thousands of miles from his monastery, and facing with eagerness the wholly other, the unknown....
My gelong, my lama.