issue 19 winter 02
15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | current

Comment - Unexpected questions

Following the shock conversion to Catholicism of a prominent Buddhist scholar, Vishvapani considers how deep an adopted faith reaches into the psyche.

Paul Williams, Professor of Indian religions at Bristol University, is one of Britain's leading scholars of Buddhism and a long-time Buddhist practitioner. Indeed his book Mahayana Buddhism is a gem of clarity and insight. How surprising then, to hear a couple of years ago that he had decided to become a Catholic. Williams' new book Unexpected Way is a confession of his new faith, and an exploration of his reasons for making the change.

As well as surprise, my response included incredulity. Catholicism....Catholicism! I have tended to assume that, while Buddhism is an intellectually tenable and spiritually vital option for modern people, Catholicism belongs to a troubled past. Above all my view of Catholicism has been influenced by the testimonies of ex-Catholic friends concerning the debilitating effects of guilt: the psychological debris through which they have had to burrow in seeking an emotionally healthy basis for their lives. How could an intelligent and well-informed person possibly make such a choice? I offer these responses not as a rebuke to either the Church or Williams but as a starting point in reflecting on his conversion and his book.

Williams raises objections to Buddhist teachings, but he doesn't try to prove they are wrong. He shows why he found the Catholic perspective more satisfactory in answering questions about life that deeply troubled him. What interests me is not so much the answers he finds in Catholicism, but the questions themselves.

Williams writes: 'The question: why is there something rather than nothing? has become for me rather like what Zen calls a koan. It is a constant niggling question that has worried and goaded me (often, I think, against my will) into a different understanding, a different vision of the world and our place in it.'

This question was first posed in a philosophically exact form by the great Catholic thinker, St Thomas Aquinas. Williams is dissatisfied with the answer of Buddhists (and other pragmatists) that things are simply the way they are, and that Buddhist practice involves coming to terms with this 'reality'. For Buddhism the world is an endless network of conditions, a process of actions and consequences, and it is meaningless to ask where, or why, it started. Williams doesn't deny the rationality of this position, but it does not satisfy him. He wants to know why things are this way, and he follows Aquinas' answer, that there must be a 'necessary being' whose existence is not conditioned or dependent. Enter 'God', the answer to all conceivable 'why?' questions.

Williams is also dismayed by the implications of the Buddhist teaching that rebirth does not offer a solution to the problem of death. For Buddhism – unlike, for example, Hinduism – the being that is reborn cannot be identified with the one that dies. The ending of one life merely conditions the start of another. Where does that leave you, Williams wonders? 'Unless I gained Enlightenment in this life, I – Williams – the person I am - would have no hope. For the rebirth of Williams that follows from not attaining enlightenment would not be the same person as Williams... Thus Buddhism appeared to me hope-less.'

In this way Williams has become a Catholic more orthodox than most – and to some extent out of sympathy with contemplative Catholics who are interested in Buddhist meditation methods, or believe that both traditions point to a truth that is beyond the doctrines of either. Williams finds meaning in an ultimate reality distinct from the human mind and its egoistic preoccupations. This reality is most readily encountered, he believes, not in introverted meditation practices, but in the Church and the community of believers. 'The final goal is essentially communal, for the Christian vision of history is as a love-song, the love between God and his people.'

I hope I have not distorted the arguments of Unexpected Way. It is rather delicate to comment on a book that is so personal while also touching universal concerns. For the record, I am not writing to condemn Williams' apostasy and I hope he is happy and fulfilled in his new faith. Yet the Buddha himself was scathing and often funny about such arguments, and some Buddhists, following him, regard them as distractions from the concerns of spiritual life. Williams knows this and he responds by asking, what if there really is a God? In which case it is Buddhism that misses the point.

Williams offers a cogent challenge to Buddhism, and he should be thanked for his clarity in disagreeing with it. This challenge is potentially bracing. In recent years the popularity of the Buddha's teaching has been buoyed by a sense that it is attuned to the zeitgeist. Buddhists and their sympathisers hold that their faith is compatible with science, with post-Enlightenment humanism, and with the freedoms offered by the modern world. Yet it also offers what is lacking in modern culture: a source of meaning, and contact with a long-forgotten wisdom.

If we come to feel that Buddhism is evidently just true, then beneath our overt tolerance a secret feeling of superiority may creep in. Or else, if we hold the apparently tolerant view that the truth is beyond concepts and that many religions offer ways of approaching that truth, we can still believe that Buddhism is the only map that will get you to the top.

But such opinions don't go deep enough. Williams' arguments aim to show that Catholicism is reasonable; not that it is correct, but that it meets his spiritual needs more adequately. So although he presents the reasons for his conversion in the form of intellectual arguments (he is a scholar after all) they rest on an emotional conviction, and psychological orientation. And one of the Buddha's most important teachings is that our views (ditthis) grow from our emotions.

He belongs to the generation of baby-boomers who encountered Buddhism in their youth and are now the leaders of western Buddhism. I hear Williams' concerns echoed by others of his generation who are now entering their last third of life, and are confronted by its end. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, 'for every thinking soul there are only two facts: I and the Abyss.' Might it be that the desire to affirm the existence of an ultimate reality beyond the self derives from fear of the abyss of non-existence? And more broadly, what happens to seekers of Enlightenment when, after many years of practice, it still seems no nearer? What happens to idealists when they find that the world around them has failed to change? What happens to people who have committed their lives to a Buddhist movement when they grow tired of its limitations?

Sometimes people who have spent their lives pursuing career and family reach mid-life and yearn for the simplicity and fulfilment offered by Buddhism. But for some long-time Buddhists it can work the other way. Some start to look to their roots, and are forced to ask how deep their Buddhist faith really goes. As Williams says, 'I strongly suspect that many western Buddhists deep down are still Christians. I was. I was a lapsed Christian, perhaps, but still a Christian.'

Such 'unconscious Christianity' is associated with the values and images inculcated in childhood, but it also involves the extent to which one feels part of the culture. Jung believed that while westerners could gain inspiration from eastern traditions, they should not adopt them because those traditions were alien to the archetypes that are the fundamental constructs of the western psyche. He suggested that true fulfilment can only be apprehended through the myths and symbols of one's own culture. Tibet can seem to westerners to embody a religious culture that combines mystical sophistication with the primal power of shamanism. It is an alluring image of everything that has been lost in western modernity; yet the danger is that it remains alien and tinged by the exotic. By contrast, in embracing Catholicism Williams was surprised to discover that in England he was already living in a 'sacred landscape' filled with historical associations, holy places and pilgrimage sites.

Perhaps Williams' conversion is a sign that western Buddhism will be tested as those who established it here enter later life. There can come a point in many lives when the values and belief systems of youth ('ideological' conformity, the opinions of others, and ideals that seem disconnected from reality) start to lose their power. The lesson for those of us wishing to deepen our engagement with Buddhism is that our practice must include unacknowledged desires. It needs to be rooted in the whole of our experience. Buddhism may never feel completely natural to westerners until it has been re-expressed in the language, symbols and archetypes of their own culture. This can only be achieved over many generations. Meanwhile the abyss beckons.

Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism, by Paul Williams, Continuum