What would life be like without the glorious superfluities of flowers in your hair, of poetry, or simply of the candle we light at a festive meal?

Confrontation and interaction of the great spiritual traditions with one another is going on all around us.  It may one day be recognized as the dominant theme of the age in which we are living.  At present, it is at any rate a topic that concerns each one of us.  Our understanding of what is really happening will depend on the way in which we tackle this topic.  There are basically two approaches, one from the outside, the other from the inside.  All we can do from the outside is to examine and compare forms; the living experience which creates and sustains these forms is accessible only by entering into it. It is this approach from the inside which we shall make our own here.

Our Quest for Meaning

We may start out with a general question: What is the driving force behind the great variety of religious expressions (those labeled as such and those possibly more truly religious for having escaped the label)?  The answer: The driving force is our quest for meaning.  This may serve us, in fact, as a working definition of religion (religion, of which the religions are so many different expressions): our quest for ultimate meaning. Spirituality is, then, no more and no less than meaningful living, religion realized in daily life.  The challenge is; then, to understand our own quest for meaning and so to get at the root from which all the different spiritual traditions grow.  There is nothing esoteric about all this.  We are not speaking of mystical depths accessible only to the few.  Our quest for meaning is so simple that it is at once personal and universal. Call it our quest for happiness (which is precisely what it is) and it will sound much less formidable.

Happiness and meaningful life are inseparable.  You may know people who appear to have whatever good fortune can give and are nevertheless desperately unhappy.  And there are others who in the midst of raw misery are deeply at peace and – well, genuinely happy.  See if you can find where the difference lies. When we go deep enough we find that the ones have found the one thing which the others are lacking: meaning in life.  But we should not call meaning a ‘thing.’  It is, in fact, the one reality in our life which is nothing.  Nor should we say that someone has found meaning, as if, once found, meaning could be safely kept for darker days.  Meaning must be constantly received, like the light to which we must open our eyes here and now, if we want to see.  One can strive for meaning; happiness is always a free gift, a surprise.

Our Need for Meaning

It is important at this point that we distinguish clearly between meaning and purpose.  We must distinguish without separating them.  The purpose of anything we do is determined by its usefulness; not so the meaning.  What a thing or an action means to me is determined not by its usefulness, but by my appreciation.  Meaning is the value of even the useless.  The things most meaningful to us are often superfluous.  What would life be like without the glorious superfluities of flowers in your hair, of poetry, or simply of the candle we light at a festive meal, though there is plenty of electric light for utility? A mere operator has no appreciation for this.  But again, we must distinguish without separating purpose from meaning.  We need only watch a gondolier guiding his gondola through the traffic of a Venetian canal to realize that the perfect operator is a perfect dancer.  There is nothing  more universally meaningful.

We must go one step beyond usefulness and appreciation in distinguishing purpose and meaning.  In order to accomplish a given purpose I must be able to control the situation.  And in order to be in control I must first grasp what it is all about: ‘to grasp’ – that is the right word with regard to purpose.  I must grasp all details firmly, take hold of them as of so many tools. But when it comes to meaning, what is there to be grasped? On the contrary, I must allow myself to be grasped by whatever it is, before it can become meaningful to me.  As people sometimes say: “How does this grab you?”  Only when it “grabs” you will it mean something to you.  But there lies a risk.  As long as I am in control, not much can happen to me. As soon as I allow reality to “touch me,” I am in for adventure. The quest for meaning is the adventure par excellence, and happiness lies in the thrill of this adventure.

Meaning and Word 

We in the West usually conceive of meaning as the significance of a sign or word.  “This tells me something,” we say when a thing, an action or a situation has meaning for us.  “It speaks to me,” and thus it becomes, in the widest sense, a “word.”  In fact, we find it difficult to imagine that someone could focus on anything else when speaking of meaning.

The close association of meaning and word in the mind of Westerners has deep roots.  It goes back to two key intuitions, one Jewish, one Greek, which fuse and so strengthen one another.  The Greek one hinges on the notion of Logos (which is broader than our notion of “word,” but certainly includes it); this is the notion that we can understand because we somehow have a share in the Logos, the root and origin of everything that is to be understood.  Understanding is possible because both existence and knowledge are governed by the same principle, the Logos.  The Jewish intuition, which came to reinforce the word-aspect of this Logos notion, is as basic to Jewish religion as the Logos is to Greek thought; its simplest formula is “God speaks.”

Martin Buber tells of Rabbi Zusya, one of the great Hasidic masters, who was never able to quote the sayings of his teacher.  For when Rabbi Zusya heard the introduction to the Scripture passage which his teacher was about to expound: “And God spoke…,” he was so overcome with ecstasy and carried on so wildly that he had to be taken out.  And then he stood in the hall or in the woodshed, it is told, beating against the walls and crying: “God spoke! God spoke!”  And the story concludes: “One word is enough, for with one word can the world be uplifted, and with one word can the world be redeemed.”  The Old and the New Testament are linked together by this one Word.  For if God really speaks, this implies that God is, so to say, involved with the world, and it follows – not out of any external necessity, but with the inner logic of the heart – that the Word should be made flesh, should reach a distance from God beyond imagination, should enter into the very “bowels of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).  God goes all the way.

Meaning in Silence 

The notion of “listening to the Word” is so fundamental to our Western concept of meaning that we must almost leap over our own shadow to realize the possibility of finding meaning not primarily in Word but in Silence.  And yet, there is a whole vast tradition of spirituality in which meaning hinges not on the Word but on Silence.  Just as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of spirituality is contained as in a seed in the one insight that “God speaks,” so the key intuition of Buddhism is summed up in the celebrated saying, “I have heard the sound of no-sound.” There is no aspect of Buddhist spirituality on which this dictum will not shed light.

We point, in the West, to a vase or an ash tray and ask: “What is this?”  No matter how manifold the answers we receive, they will generally conceive of the thing as a certain material formed in a particular way: glass pressed or blown into a certain shape, clay shaped on a potter’s wheel, fired and glazed.  Of course. It never occurs to us that someone’s bent of mind could be so different that the answer centers with the same directness on the empty space of our vase or dish.  Surprise.  “Empty space? Is that all?”  “Well, of course, the emptiness has to be defined by this shape or that.  But this is less important.  What really matters is the emptiness of the vessel.  Isn’t this what makes it a vessel?”  We must admit it, strange as this approach may seem to us; as strange as the “sound of no-sound,” to which it is closely related.

The great religious traditions are not complementary but inter-dimensional. Each contains each, though with the greatest possible differences in accentuation.

When we look more deeply into it, we find that all this is not quite so strange as it may at first appear.  After all, we too are aware (or should be aware) of the intimate relatedness of silence and word to each other.  The word would not be word without silence.  The word is not truly word unless it is born of silence, embodies silence, returns into silence.  Only the word that comes out of silence is more than chatter.  And it must be received by silence, as seed is received by the silent furrows. Inexhaustible silence, always still greater, though it pours itself forever into word, comes to itself only in the word.  Silence would not be silence without the word.

A Trinity:  Word, Silence, Understanding 

Silence, in this sense, is not the absence of word or sound. Silence is not characterized by absence but by presence, a presence too great for words.  When we have some little joy or pain we are apt to talk about it.  When joy or pain grows strong we rejoice or cry.  But when bliss or suffering become overpowering – we are silent.  Any encounter with mystery is hidden in silence.  (The very term “mystery” comes from muein: “to keep silent.”)  Mystery is not an empty emptiness but the incomprehensible Presence that touches us and renders us speechless as it imparts to us meaning.

Only by the tension between word and silence is meaning upheld.  (Both “word” and “silence” are taken here in the most comprehensive sense, as two dimensions of all reality.)  The moment we relax this tension meaning escapes us: the moment we break the tension meaning is broken.  Failing to see the distinction between word and silence – a distinction greater and more basic than any other – would mean relaxing the tension: yet, pushing the distinction to the point of separation would break the tension.  The point is that silence and word are distinguished as well as united by a third dimension of meaning: that of understanding.

After all, how do we understand?  I would say, by allowing the word to lead us into silence until we truly hear the silence in and through the word.  But more concretely, how does understanding come about in a dialogue?  A true dialogue is more than an exchange of words: the “more” consists in an exchange of silence.  This is where understanding comes in. For true understanding it is necessary that the silence within me should come to word and so reach out to you until it touches not only your ear and your brain but your heart, your still point, the core of silence within you.  Thus, understanding is communication of silence with silence in and through the word.

Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism 

As soon as we re-establish Understanding in its proper place, we have gained a new horizon within which to view the relationship of Christian spirituality to Buddhism and Hinduism. If we can accept that our quest for ultimate meaning is the tap root of all spirituality, and if it is true that Word, Silence, and Understanding together constitute the sphere of meaning, we can see the possibility that three different traditions within humanity’s quest may focus each on a different one of these three dimensions of meaning.  Of course, we are not speaking of three water-tight compartments but of dimensions which though distinguishable, can never be separated from one another.  Yet, we have seen that in our own tradition the focus on the Word is so strong that Silence and Understanding are almost crowded out of our field of vision: We have to make an effort to rediscover their proper place.  Thus we should be able to appreciate that in other traditions Silence or Understanding may hold a place of pre-eminence comparable to the one which the Word holds in our own.

If we now consult the data of comparative religion, we find verified what at first sight would seem too good to be true. Jews, Christians and Moslems find ultimate meaning in the Word.  Buddhists (as we have already briefly indicated) in Silence, in the emptiness which is fullness, in the nothing that gives meaning to everything.  Understanding in turn which yokes together Word and Silence is the central preoccupation of Hinduism.   “Yoke” and “Yoga” stem from the same root and Swami Venkatesananda gives voice to the deepest intuition of Hinduism when he states succinctly: “Yoga is simply Understanding.”  Admittedly this sketchy scheme allows for about as much detail as a stamp-size map of the world.  The obvious danger is over-simplification.  Yet there are advantages to a reduction of scale.  For one thing, we shall be less apt to overlook the forest for the trees.

Hinduism for instance is so vast and varied a jungle of religions and philosophies that one cannot blame anyone who despairs of finding a unifying principle behind it all.  Yet, if there is one, it is the ever-repeated insight that God manifest is God unmanifest, and God unmanifest is God manifest.  This is Understanding in our sense, understanding that the Word is Silence – Silence comes to itself in the Word; understanding that the Silence is Word – Word brought home.  “God manifest is God unmanifest” is the Hindu parallel to Jesus’ word: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).  Word and Silence are one and it is in and through the Spirit of Understanding that they are one.  Hindus have spent five thousand years or more cultivating, not a theology of the Holy Spirit (theology belongs to the realm of the Logos, the Word) but what must take the place of theology when the Spirit is accorded the place which the Word holds in our approach.  Should this not give us hope that the encounter with Hinduism may tap new springs in the depth of our Christian heritage?

In a similar way, Buddhism concentrates on a dimension which belongs to the Word, but has been somewhat neglected in Christian tradition.  In what would correspond to a theology of the Father (since theo-logy can only be about the Father), silence would have to replace the medium of the word.  Maybe Buddhists could teach us something in this field.  When Buddhists speak of a door, they do not mean primarily frame, leaf, and hinges, as we do, but the empty space.  When Christ says, “I am the door” (John 10:9) we are free to take this in the Western-Christian or in the Buddhist sense.  Why should the latter be less Christian?

Each Tradition Contains the Others 

It would fall short of the truth to claim that the great traditions of spirituality are complementary.  In fact, it would be wrong to think that they could add up, as it were, to “the real thing.” They are “the real thing” each one of them.  They are not complementary but inter-dimensional.  Each contains each, though with the greatest possible differences in accentuation. Each is, therefore, unique.

Each is, in its own way, superior.  And what of the Christian claim to universality?  Rightly understood, this is not some sort of colonial imperative: it points toward inner horizons.  It makes demands of us Christians, not of others, challenging us to rediscover again and again the neglected dimensions of our own tradition, so as to become truly universal, truly catholic.

Not some theory, but our own experience must be the key to an understanding of the spiritual traditions with which we are confronted.  For, if our search for meaning in life is the root of spirituality, and happiness is its fruit, we should be able to gain access to all its forms from the vantage point of our own familiar and very personal moments of happiness.  What happens, then, in those happy moments when something really becomes meaningful to us?  Say, the smile of a child, unexpectedly, in the midst of a crowd.  Or a moment in which nothing happens while you sit in a parked car (when Nothing really happens to us!), or dancing.  We are overcome.  All we can say is:  “This is it!  Here is the answer to all my search for meaning, insignificant though it may seem to anyone else.”  But listen to what we are saying: “This is it.”  “This” stands for the smile, the moment in which nothing happened the dancing – for trifles, “tremendous trifles,” as Chesterton would say: and “it” stands for meaning – ultimate meaning in the last analysis, for whenever we truly open our heart we open it unconditionally (to drink from the stream is to drink from its source).  I can never decide which is the more amazing paradox: that “this” trifling thing or event should reveal to me “it,” ultimate meaning: or that “it” on which all my happiness depends, should reveal itself to me in “this” trifle.

And so we go from meaningful experience to meaningful experience saying: “This is it, and this, and this!” – so many words of the one Word in which meaning is spelled out to us. Maybe our Buddhist friend says the same with a different emphasis: “This is it, and this is it too!” and for this and this and this there is only one “it,” the one great Silence that comes to word in every word the great Oneness in which all multiplicity comes to rest.  But our Hindu friend can wholeheartedly agree with both versions (there lies the unifying power of Yoga): “This is it – fine!  This is it – fine!   After all what really matters is that this is it.”  This is understanding.  Only when we can truly say this is it, have we understood.

Our own confrontation with mystery gives us thus, the key for an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual traditions.  Just as silence, understanding, and word imply one another so do the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian traditions.  The Understanding which is the life-breath of Hinduism cannot be separated from Word and Silence which it dynamically unites. The silence into which Buddhists drop down their thoughts can be separated neither from the Word to which it gives birth nor from the Understanding through which the Word is brought home.  Thus a true Buddhist is Hindu and Christian, whether s/he knows it or not.  A true Hindu is Christian and Buddhist, whether s/he knows it or not.  And let us add: a true Christian is Buddhist and Hindu, whether s/he knows it or not.  To know it becomes increasingly more timely and more important.

Originally printed as “Christian Confrontation with Hinduism and Buddhism” in Integral Yoga, Vol. VI, No. 2, pp. 7-12.

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.