Sunday, March 8, 2009


Whatever celestial form devotees choose to worship with reverence,
I stabilize the faith of that particular devotee in that very form.
Endowed with such faith
they worship that particular deity
and obtain through it without doubt
their desired enjoyments as ordained by myself.
(Bhagavad Gita 7:21-22)

Monday, 9 march, 09

Sunday morning I did the worship service at Wesley Uniting Church. Very different from a Roman Catholic liturgy, Don had pretty much gutted everything they normally do as part of their service except for the beginning and end bits, introduction, announcements, hymns, and after the proclamation of the Gospel I was on. I checked with him again on my way up to the front, “How long should I go?” and he affirmed about a half an hour. I started by telling the assembly that I could never get away with that in our tradition, though some still do. I know some of you would like me to reprint the homily here––I take that back: this was not a homily––it was a “sermon”! But it was a full half and hour long. The Gospel reading was Mark 8:27-38, which has three parts to it: first Jesus asking “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answering “You are the Messiah”; Jesus predicting that he is going to suffer and die, Peter being horrified by that and Jesus rebuking him; and then Jesus announcing that anyone who would save their life would lose it. I used the device that I used some weeks ago concerning the word “Lord”––“Lord” doesn’t define Jesus; Jesus defines what it means to be “Lord.” And the same applies to “messiah”: it doesn’t define Jesus; Jesus defines what it means to be a “messiah,” and it is not what Peter thinks it means. In the same way Jesus defines, or re-defines, what it means to be a king; and in some way (in the light of currently reading Karen Armstrong’s book “A History of God”), the same thing applies to “God”: God doesn’t define Jesus; Jesus defines what it means to be God, hence in John 14 he says to Philip, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”; in other words, “I’m what God is like.” And Jesus also defines what the “way” is toward the realization of our own oneness with God. And that “way” is the way of the seed falling into the ground and dying so as to yield a rich harvest. The way is the way of a certain dying of self.

Then I launched into my comparison of the Hindu-vedanta-advaitin notion of the self (the self disappearing into the Great Self), compared to the Buddhist notion of not-self (or no-self); with the Christian notion of the eternal self in personal relationship with Absolute Reality, as the real self of Jesus survives the total dissolution of both his body and soul. I even brought in a little of the telos-scopos thing, the difference between the end and the goal. How could I not? This was the exact example that first made it occur to me. Jesus is speaking a piece of universal wisdom here, an aspect of the perennial philosophy: as Dogen would say it, “To learn one’s self is to forget oneself.” I also sang my version of “Unless a Grain of Wheat” at the beginning, and “the Litany of the Person” at the end.

I was dressed in my habit as I thought appropriate for the occasion. It was a little on the warm side in the church but not oppressively so. But I realized about ¾ of the way into my presentation that sweat was pouring down my back and legs. (I was seated on a tall stool.) “Why?” I asked myself quickly. Because I was getting absolutely no feedback from the assembly. Mind you, I wasn’t wearing my glasses or my lenses, so I couldn’t see clearly, but even then I usually can get a sense if folks are with me or not, but in this case there was nothing. The communicator in me I was just sure that I was not doing a very good job, either over peoples’ heads or too esoteric or boring, and I was feeling bad about the fact that they had gone through all this trouble to bring me in and I was disappointing them. But I took a deep breath and barreled through the rest, trying as hard as possible not to be attached “to the fruits of my labor.” But when I slipped back into the first bench with Don, he said, “Wonderful, Cyprian.” And then at the sign of peace and after the service was over all kinds of people were coming up to me and talking about what I had said and expressing their appreciation and interest, and were so friendly. I was relieved but a little confused. As we were leaving I asked Meath about it, and he said simply something like, “This is Australia. We are trained to not react in church. We don’t clap, we don’t show emotion, we don’t hug each other, we don’t laugh. It’s what we inherited from the British sensibility. We save our emotions for the barbeque, the beach and the football match.” Wow, I said, that would take some getting used to. Now here is a place where we are so different in America, at least in the crowds that I hang in. Not better or worse, mind you, but quite different. It is slowly dawning on me that I am going to have to get used to this the next few weeks! I might have to go hang out at the beach or a football match.

Meath and a friend took me for lunch afterward and were gently teasing me about how many references I made to “catholic” thinkers, all the way from the desert fathers and Basil the Great straight through Bernard of Clairvaux, even to quoting Benedict XVI from his book “Jesus of Nazareth.” These are folks that don’t often get quoted in a Wesleyan church. I had noted that myself about halfway through, but, hey, that’s where I come from and most of them were thinkers from the undivided church. But, yes, I had found it funny too. I’m expecting a note from the Holy Office soon: “Dear Rev Consiglio, Our attention has been called to your recent remarks concerning women’s ordination and inter-religious dialogue. Please refrain from ever speaking again publicly. P.S. Thanks for the shout-out for my book!”

Here's a picture of me with a Jack Johnson fan and look alike checking out "the Collings" after the service.

Last night then we had the second part of my responsibilities at Wesley Uniting, an interfaith event. Don had invited a few other representatives from other traditions but in the end it was only myself, Ajahn Brahm, another British born Thai Buddhist monk who is the abbot of a monastery near Perth, and Sheik Mohammad, an imam from a local mosque. Ironically, Willie had told me all about Ajahn Brahm back in Bangkok. He is an acquaintance of Pandit and he was speaking in Bangkok the day after I left. As a matter of fact when we compared notes in the backroom before the event began it was as if we had been following each other around the southeast Asia: he had also been in Singapore and had just come from Jakarta. He is very popular as a teacher in this part of the world and everyone seems to know him. He reminded me of Pandit to some extent, eschewing formality and being very down to earth, maybe even more so than Pandit. We also found out that we have a mutual friend in Heng Sure. And when I told him I was going to be singing a song of Heng Sure’s he started singing, “If I were an American beef cow, you can bet that I would be mad too…” (That’s not the song I sang, by the way.) Sheik Mohammad is a very urbane man originally from South Africa, a very articulate careful speaker, polite and gracious.

Again, I started the event off with a song (“Lead Me From Death into Life”), and then Don moderated by asking us questions. Though having been involved in a lot of interfaith events, to my recollection this is the first time that I have ever been a speaker in a panel like that. I kept thinking about the presidential debates, and especially President Obama and Vice-President Biden: as for the latter I was conscious of not carrying on too long; as for the former I was keenly aware that not every question can be answered with a sound-bite. There are sometimes complicated issues at stake. I wasn’t uncomfortable but I was certainly trying to be careful and not to give overly emotive or easy answers. Sheik Mohammad was even more cautious than I, but Islam has even more at stake. Ajahn Brahm, on the other hand, was very much at his ease, and sometimes answered in a way that I think of as typically Buddhist, that is, saying something slightly shocking to shatter pretenses and cut through illusions.

There was one moment that I will probably retrace a bit for the next few days and wish I could have answered better. We were talking about violence, and at one point someone from the crowd asked if there could ever be a just war. Ajahn Brahm answered unequivocally “no.” But I said sadly that I wished I could give such a black and white answer, but I had to always leave the option of protection of the innocent, and that if I failed to protect someone who was innocent I might be committing a sin of omission. Ajahn challenged me on that, but sadly I could not back off (sorry, Baxter), though I did add that I thought a just war was practically impossible in this day and age of nuclear weaponry where indiscriminate killing of non-combatants was probable. I was also able to make the point that our last two popes were totally against our recent American military aggression and that the present pope has been a huge advocate of using “reason” to try to make the case for not resorting to violence of any kind. I had looked over my notes on Islam just before the event, and had pasted in them the report from the colloquium held by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation in Rome April 2008. At the end of the meeting the participants agreed upon the following: that faith and reason do not contradict each other (though faith might in some cases be above reason, but never against it); and that faith and reason are intrinsically non-violent. And so, “Neither reason nor faith should be used for violence.” Unfortunately, as we know, both of them have been sometimes misused to perpetrate violence.

I did step out and say, when asked, that I thought our present hierarchy’s approach to inter-religious dialogue was not helping us much. The present pope has been pretty consistent on this. He had already said as far back as in his 1969 book “Das neue Volk Gottes,” as John Allen just mentioned this week in his column, that at its core, Christianity is not about dialogue with the world but rather kerygma, proclamation. But for me, the insistence on proclamation
rather than dialogue is a false dilemma. Also, when the topic came up about patriarchy, I also had to admit that there was nothing I had heard yet to convince me that women couldn’t be members of the hierarchy of the church, that in fact we were terribly lopsided with our mono-sexual leadership. I usually don’t even go that far in public, but hey… I’m also rarely in a Wesleyan Uniting Church in Australia with a Thai Buddhist monk and a Muslim imam.

Meath and Don were both very pleased with the event and said that it is a rarity for Perth for may years now. I am pleased that my coming could be the occasion for it to take place. I am looking forward to the concert tomorrow night as a culmination of my work here. Sheik Mohammad said he would try to come. I told him the story of the alhamdullilah debacle in Malaysia. He was very sympathetic and said that if he came he’d love to hear me sing it, so I hope he does come and I will, gladly.