In October of 1968, that prodigious year, my future teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche met the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the Calcutta Oberoi Hotel, a grand tattered remnant of the British Raj. This was a very improbable crossing of paths. Neither had previously known anything about the other, and they had no intention of meeting. Thomas Merton was far away from his Kentucky monastery for the first time since he entered it in 1941. Trungpa had left Asia in 1963 to study at Oxford and teach in the West, and was making his last brief visit to India. They met by chance in the lobby of the hotel, shared drinks together in Trungpa’s suite, conversed intensely about their lives and spiritual practices, became true friends, and planned to meet the next year to cowrite a book that would compare and perhaps reconcile Christian and Buddhist spirituality. Merton’s accidental death on December 10 in Bangkok stopped these plans and ended one of the most intriguing, albeit brief, spiritual friendships of the twentieth century.
Many years later, when I learned of this meeting, I felt an eerie sense of personal significance—as if the thread of my own spiritual fate had been secretly handed off from one man to the other. But in 1968 I was just sixteen years old, growing up in remote Minnesota, and utterly ignorant of this meeting, or Tibetan rinpoches, or even India.
I was born and baptized Catholic. My mother was a convert to that faith and the very best of Catholics in her acts and in her devotion, though she rarely spoke of it and responded sparsely when asked questions about her faith. When I was only four she had taken me regularly to early morning masses at the beautiful chapel of St. Mary Hospital. And there I had met God, I was quite sure. I felt his presence in the amber dawn light that diffused through stained glass windows, flowed along the high arch ceilings and massive pillars, gathered brilliantly around the white altar statue of Our Blessed Mother. My small heart filled and grew still in that presence. It was all quite obvious. No need then to wonder or ask questions.
But as it happened, despite a thoroughly Catholic upbringing, those early years were the high tide of my Christian faith. I grew up attending only Catholic schools, went to mass almost every day of the school year (it was part of the curriculum), was anointed in the sacraments of childhood, served four years as an altar boy, learned basic church Latin for that station. Yet—and perhaps there is no genuine explanation beyond spiritual destiny—the flower of faith slowly faded in my heart. I became uncomfortable with those of my classmates who were most pious. I began to sense a little rigidity, or uncertainty, when I asked questions of the Franciscan nuns and priests who were my teachers. By teen age I had learned that mankind’s visions of God were manifold, and wondered if I could rightly hold to a belief in an invisible God separate from us but so entangled in human affairs as to judge every act and thought. A God who permitted certain persecutions, even perhaps religious wars, and tolerated incomprehensible fanaticisms and evils.
By some coincidence it was in 1968, the same year Trungpa met Thomas Merton, that I too first met Merton, through his famous spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. The book was my mother’s, a guide star of her Catholic conversion, a modest black book that had sat all the years of my childhood on one of the upper shelves of the den library. Though I had noticed it repeatedly over the years because of its strange title, I had never touched it until that year, when my uncertainty about Catholicism got troubling.
I don’t remember why I finally read the book—had someone told me it was about Catholic faith? I do recall that I read it intensely, and thoroughly, and secretly—not feeling that my family would understand or support my doubts. Thomas Merton captivated me with his frank description of a chaotic, dissipated youth and his eventual conversion to Catholicism. I wanted to speak with him and express my thanks and comradeship. I ached at the destiny of loss and displacement that gradually took away his entire family, leaving him nowhere to belong. I was uplifted by his lack of self-pity, his humbleness, the goodness of the choice he made to become a Catholic and a monk, and to save his own life. And I knew then, finally and surely, that his path was not my path and his God was not my God. I could not identify with the sinfulness he felt (though I was no more angel than he), and I could not agree with his belief that the Catholic religion was the only true religion and the Catholic God the only true God. My thanks to him was for showing me so clearly what it meant to be a Catholic that I could leave Catholicism. My comradeship with him was that of the vast scattered fellowship of spiritual searchers. Like him I was a person for whom spirituality was essential, and like him I was destined to years of spiritual uncertainty, trying to discover my own path.
It was not until I was almost thirty, after years of spiritual futilities, that I first heard the name of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I must say it was not an auspicious beginning. My friend who introduced me to Trungpa had participated in his organization for many years but had never been able to overcome some of her doubts about his drinking and sexuality. It was hard for me to get past that. Still, she was passionate about this man and his teachings. She convinced me that I should at least read one of his books. I went to the Occult Bookstore on North Clark Street in Chicago, and bought the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. The title didn’t even make sense to me. But the book inside made perfect sense, and in that and other of Trungpa’s writings I found a system of spiritual beliefs that I could stand upon. My outer spiritual search was ending. An inner journey, even harder, was just beginning: the long process of turning my mind to commitment, to the teacher, and to the work of spiritual practice.
Trungpa Rinpoche had come to America in early 1970, less than two years after the encounter with Merton. But so much had changed over that time. Merton’s brilliant young monk friend, charismatic but still a little uncertain, had transformed into an almost limitlessly confident and ingenious spiritual teacher. This transformation had actually begun in 1968, when—just before the Merton meeting—he had “received” a remarkable text, The Sadhana of Mahamudra. Trungpa wrote out this liturgy while on retreat in Bhutan, but did not feel it was the product of his mind. Rather he perceived that it came directly from the mind of Guru Rinpoche, the “Second Buddha” of Tibet, and was instruction for his own life mission: to encounter and subdue the raging force of materialism in the West.
After a near-fatal auto accident in April 1969 left him paralyzed on his left side, he transformed very fast. Understanding this event as a message to “wake up,” he felt impelled to give up all “exotic” trappings—including his monastic status and robes—that created separation from his Western students. At that point most Tibetans and many Westerners abandoned him as a lost case. In January 1970 he married a young Englishwoman, and by March he was in North America almost penniless, with few allies and uncertain prospects, yet already entering the doubtlessness and spiritual ingenuity that characterized the final seventeen years of his life.
One of the essential teachings that Trungpa propagated in America is that of “nontheism,” which he considered an aspect of egolessness. Reduced to its pith, nontheism is the teaching that intervention of ultimate reality, whether called God or by some other name, is not the source of salvation for us beings of the temporal world. Rather, we must make our own salvation, helped perhaps by more realized beings, such as Christ or Buddha or saints or the guru, but basically alone, reliant on our own wit and grit. No God or external Power will intervene for us, or condemn us.
The consequences of rejecting or accepting the principle of salvation-through-God are far-reaching. For example: the power of sin and guilt may be much less for a Buddhist, who does not accept such salvation. And the power of prayer and self-surrender may be greatly enhanced for a Christian, who does. In general, Buddhists do not use the name God to describe the ultimate. But I believe it is important that this not be seen as a denial of Christians’ experience or belief. For practical purposes, nontheism is better understood as a method rather than as a creed.
Nontheism is not a dictionary word but a word Trungpa created to express the Buddhist viewpoint. It is quite different from atheism; Buddhism neither denies nor asserts the existence of God. Nor is nontheism agnosticism, meaning the belief that it is not possible to know ultimate truths. Buddhism asserts that it is possible to know the ultimate through direct meditative perception. (Albeit not through intellect and logic; all “proofs of God” are held to be fallacious.) Nontheism is simply the Buddhist teaching that salvationism might eventually lead to spiritual obstacles: perhaps resentment towards God—or doubt towards one’s own worthiness—in the face of strong adversity. Perhaps, more subtly, it may be a tendency to see “someone else” as responsible for the general well-being of oneself and the world. And from there might arise a whole subconscious system of helplessness, entitlement and blame.
Nontheism is especially important to the practice of Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, the type of Buddhism that eventually became my path. (Though only after a decade of struggle with misgivings and misapprehensions towards Trungpa Rinpoche!) Vajrayana has deep resonances with Christianity, certainly with the Catholicism I grew up with: prayer, blessings, elaborate ritual, richly significant iconography and architecture, etc. It is easy for a Westerner raised as a Catholic to misunderstand and drift into the expectation, conscious or not, that Vajrayana is a system of magic to impel salvation by the guru or by the deities. It is said that this mistake, for one who has gone through the long process of preparation and commitment to the Vajrayana, has disastrous psychological consequences, literally described as Buddhist hell.
The Vajrayana guru is neither worshipped nor considered a god/God. The guru need not be fully enlightened and is always human, therefore conventionally imperfect. Nonetheless he or she is indispensable for the Vajrayana method, which is the “transplantation” of awake mind from the guru to the students. All the strange rituals and iconography of Tantra are methods to facilitate and enhance this process. But all would be in vain if the guru did not carry the capacity for Pure Vision, and the willingness and knowledge to transmit it. For the student, access to transmission is dependent on the level of reverent resonance, called “devotion,” that he or she is able to generate. For some, like myself, it is a long hard process to arrive at a workable devotion. For others, it may come fairly easily. Either way, true devotion never feels like worship or dependence. It is more like holding open a slightly unrequited love, and a trusting, patient curiosity.
Vajrayana deities, despite the name, are also neither gods nor manifestations of God. They are imaginary, made up by our own minds but under the careful directions handed down by tradition and by the present guru. Their purpose is to represent the guru, weakly at first, but more and more strongly as we recall and empower them, so that they serve as a reminder of transmission that we carry with us at all times, in all places. Eventually the deity achieves the capacity to transmit directly from the phenomenal world, whether the guru is present or not, living or dead. This is a type of perception that transcends our everyday experience, and it might be called magic, Trungpa’s “ordinary magic.” But actually it is our own doing. Neither the guru nor the deity can save us.
I have practiced Vajrayana for over twenty years. It is without doubt the right spiritual path for me, and I think of myself as thoroughly and irreversibly nontheistic. But I was not traumatized by the Catholic experience of my youth, and have never felt the need to regret it or renounce it. Over the last ten years my mother has died and my father has developed a serious chronic illness. I have made many visits back to my hometown, and quite a few to the several churches of my childhood. Once again, after so many years, I can feel a luminous presence in the chapel of St. Mary Hospital. As a child, I called this presence God, and conceived of him as a mighty male figure somewhere high above who radiated his love and strength down to us, and especially into his house. As an adult and a Buddhist I shy away from any conceptualization that might distance me from the experience itself. And I know that any words I choose will mislead at least slightly. For myself, I have no problem using the name God to describe the chapel presence. But this God for me is a nontheistic god who is welcoming but does not reach down to pull me to him, and who does not reject me for my misdeeds—which are my own problem. He is not completely separate from me but also not merely the projection of my small mind. He in no way stands apart from the world but is the pervasive intelligence and source (Creator, if you like) of all things—rocks, elephants, rainbows, and galaxies. Though he is utterly simple and always present, he is not seen by conceptual mind and is irreducible by any method, including the analysis of science.
I know that this is not the Christian God, and some may object to my using his name in this way, or even consider it heresy to describe a god who is not a savior. It is certainly not my intention to offend. The Christian path and the Buddhist path are different, and it is not clear to me whether traveled fully they might converge at the same point. Nonetheless, both paths unquestionably create resilient kindness and unbiased intelligence in those who are genuine practitioners. These are the marks of overcoming materialism, a demon that threatens not only our spiritual sanity but even the continued existence of the human world. I feel that the issue of theism-versus-nontheism is minor compared to the issue of materialism, and that spiritually inclined theists of all kinds are the great allies of Buddhists and other nontheists in this central, critical issue of our times. We nontheists, who are relatively few in number, would be foolish to reject the comradeship of theists or belittle the wisdom and goodness in their traditions.
Thomas Merton was certainly one who came to understand the importance of creating understanding and alliance between theists and nontheists. His life-ending Asian journey was dedicated to that project. Trungpa Rinpoche knew and respected many Christian teachers and practitioners. But I truly think he loved none so well as Merton, who, he felt, understood completely the Buddhist method, and whom he called “the first genuine person that I met from the West.” Now both men are long deceased and sometimes I regret that their friendship was so fleeting and that their book was never written. I also remember how many spiritual descendants each has left behind, and how those numbers are still growing due to the power of their writings. Maybe the improbable meeting they started in Calcutta is not over yet.