Bede Griffiths: Meeting the Dalai Lama

There is nothing, which is not holy. The simplest action of eating and drinking, of washing and cleaning, of walking and sitting … have a sacramental character; they signify something beyond themselves and are intimately related to religious rites. So also every form of work … is part of a sacramental mystery, by which we enter into communion with the rhythm of nature and take part in that ritual by which human life is continually renewed.”

Bede Griffiths, The Golden String p. 152

Bede Griffiths appreciated what he owed his spiritual forebears, mentors, and guides. In the course of his spiritual direction of others, or during his homilies, he referred especially to the great and wise spiritual teachers of the early church when speaking with others about the riches of his faith.

HH The Dalai Lama, Bede Griffiths & Meath Conlan. Perth, 1992

HH The Dalai Lama, Bede Griffiths & Meath Conlan. Perth, 1992

On the last day of The Dalai Lama’s 1992 spiritual journey to Perth, Western Australia, I received a phone call from his private secretary Tenzin Geshe Tethong inviting Bede and myself to a private audience before His Holiness left for other capitals. What was meant to be a short courtesy visit lasted ninety minutes.

Warmly welcomed, Bede and I sat in  the three-seater lounge and His Holiness in a single arm-chair nearby. The atmosphere was extremely friendly and relaxed. Almost immediately the conversation turned to the mystery of God. His Holiness was genuinely interested in how Christians conceptualised and spoke of the God and God’s nature.

In the course of the morning Bede shared how Christianity inherited the typically Hebrew understanding of God as a Being of utter transcendence, a holy mystery that no one could approach, a Being of absolute moral perfection and justice and yet of infinite mercy. By the time of the New Testament God is spoken of as in intimate relation to humankind, but generally speaking it is not until the Greek Fathers that there is a development of the divine nature. His Holiness was fascinated with Bede quoted Saint Clement of Alexandria: “The deity is without form and nameless. Though we ascribe names, they are not to be taken in their strict meaning; when we call him one, good, mind, existence, Father, God, Creator, Lord … we use these [names] of honour in order that our thoughts may have something on which to rest.”

But His Holiness’ interest piqued when Bede talked of the sixth century monk who wrote under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. For the first time we find the whole problem of the nature of God and human understanding of this mystery systematically worked out. He held that God can only be known in ecstasy, when the mind passes beyond itself, transcending speech and thought … indeed his doctrine included the notion that God is as much above all being as it is above all thought. It is “above everything that exists.” Bede developed the thought of passing beyond every thought and existing thing so as to reach the supreme Godhead, yet all energy, all life, all consciousness, reason and will comes from this source and are therefore in some way contained in it. To attain knowledge of the supreme Godhead we must pass beyond all images and concepts into a kind of ‘unknowing,’ where we leave behind human notions of god-like things, as well as human means of expressing the divine nature.

While His Holiness had thought that Christians insisted on their words as permanent and definitive explanations of the mysteries, he was encouraged during this morning’s conversation, by the discovery that as Bede said, “in the abyss of the Godhead, that divine darkness, there is a mystery of personal communion in which all that we can conceive of as wisdom and knowledge, love and bliss, is contained, yet which infinitely transcends our conception … [for] the Godhead remains unfathomable, transcending human thought.” He quoted from the works of Dionysius: “I counsel you … leave your senses and the activity of the intellect … that your understanding being laid to rest, you strive toward a union with him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and all things … you shall be released from all, and so be led upwards to the Ray of that divine darkness, which exceeds all existence.”

There were other aspects of Christianity shared that morning, but Bede constantly returned to the doctrine of Dionysius and the Fathers of the Church.

At this stage His Holiness sprang up from his arm-chair and joined us on the lounge. He held Bede’s hand and while looking him in the eye, said: “You know Father, I never knew Christians could think like this.” We remained sitting clumped together for the rest of the morning. I found the Dalai Lama’s interest in everything Bede said to be sincere and engaged. Towards the end of our visit Bede remarked: “Your Holiness, as sad and painful as the history of the Tibetan Diaspora has been, it may very well be the means whereby Christians will take up meditation and recover their own contemplative riches.” His Holiness was fascinated, and agreed, while also restating his belief that for him there will never be one world religion for everyone, that there is goodness and truth to be found in all spiritualities of the world.

When we finally departed His Holiness’ presence we were both elated. I thanked Bede for his teaching and for providing the Dalai Lama with the opportunity for clarifying what perhaps was his somewhat incomplete understanding of Christianity. I believe he had given of himself at least as whole-heartedly as in any of his larger lectures before thousands. I recall one of the nicest touches at the end of this wonderful experience when Bede took me by the elbow as we walked from the audience. He remarked with, I felt, an unusual level of emotion: “You know, I really do think he likes me.”

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I have a number of spiritual tours that included visiting Saccidananda Ashram at Shantivanam in December 2010, and then in January and February 2011. If you would like to know more about these, please visit my Tours page in this website, or email me, Dr Meath Conlan: meath@diversejourneys.com

I am also available to present retreats and workshops / seminars on Bede Griffiths and his contemplative vision. Please send for a form if you wish to discuss with me about this possibility for your organisation or region.

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