This is an edited transcript of a discussion that took place June 10, 1977 in Petersham, Massachusetts. The occasion was a week-long meeting of forty monks, nuns, and lay people of differing religious traditions to discuss their mutual goals. The symposium was organized by the Aide a L’Implantation Monastique, an international Benedictine group concerned with monastic reform. It is a direct extension of a similar 1973 meeting in Bangalore, India, and of the first meeting in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, attended by Thomas Merton.

In addition to the main presentation by Br. David and Ram Dass, Abbot Armand Veilleux, Cistercian, served as moderator, and comments were made by Swami Satchidananda, of the Integral Yoga Institute, and Father Mayeul de Dreuille, Benedictine. Others also contributed and are indicated in the text as participants. The tape of the evening session was transcribed and edited by a participant, David G. Hackett, at that time a graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, California.

Abbot Armand Veilleux: You remember the scope of our meeting. It is to find the best way to foster the encounter between East and West first in each one of us and then between us. In the context of this general purpose, one of the proposals that has been made in the last few days is how to help the birth and growth of new forms of monasticism. We have spoken of “lay monasticism.” This is a new form of community where people can share in the monastic experience either permanently or for a time in their lives. It would also be a place where there is an encounter between Eastern and Western religious traditions.

In order to help us find an orientation in that line of thought, we have with us tonight Ram Dass and Brother David. They are only with us for one day, so we need to make good use of them this evening. The best way that they could help us might be through first sharing their own spiritual journeys and then we may discuss with them the issues of this meeting.

Ram Dass:   I am honored and appreciative of the opportunity to be here. It touches and awakens me in a certain way because of the nature of the quest we’re sharing. I’ve told my life story so many times that it is hard not to run it off as a tape. But because there are unique needs in this room that will make it a living statement I will gear it accordingly. I will be brief in places where otherwise I would be lengthy. Perhaps the reason I am relevant to you in your considerations, is because in a certain way I represent a very large number of spiritual seekers who are looking for some kind of form that can reveal living Truth for them.

So briefly, my resume:   I was born into a Jewish family. I was circumcised, bar-mitzvahed, and confirmed. Judaism in America, conservative or reformed Judaism, is primarily a social, political, moral structure — a set of laws for living a moral life. My father was on the board of trustees of the temple and a leading member of the Jewish community. He was head of the United Jewish Appeal, the Joint Distribution Committee during the war, and helped Jewish refugees. He started Brandeis University. He has always played a significant role. I grew up in that context.

I looked at the moment of my bar-mitzvah, which was the most sacred moment of my life in the Jewish tradition, for a living connection, for something to touch me. It didn’t. During my college years I looked to the Quaker religion, because I couldn’t adopt anything more than the quiet space within as a possibility. But I did it more as an intellectual exercise. So I finally did what most people did in the fifties and early sixties. I went toward the religion of the West which was science, in this case social science, and I became a psychologist. I got my Ph.D. and became a professor at Harvard University.

I went through psychoanalysis because I assumed that the malaise or discomfort that I was experiencing inside of myself, even though I was at the top of the heap in terms of what the culture had to offer, was my pathology, because that’s what the culture taught me to do. I was part of a philosophical, materialistic, liberal, cynical space. The courses I was teaching at Harvard were things like Existential-Transactional-Behavior Change Analysis, Human Motivation, Clinical Pathology, Freud, Jung, things like that. And I was a psychotherapist for maybe eight years along the way.

I touched a part of my being that was full and complete as it was. But I “came down” from that experience, as the terminology is used, and for six more years I tried every device I knew not to “come down,” but I continued to “go up” and “come down.”

In 1961, through the good services of a colleague of mine at Harvard, I had the opportunity to ingest something called Teonanacatl, a Mexican mushroom, which is a psychedelic chemical or mind-altering chemical. That started a period in my life which went from 1961 until 1967. This was my psychedelic period. During that time I became an active researcher and explorer in the field of LSD and the other psychedelic chemicals. In the course of that I ingested LSD, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin, and the rest, many hundreds of times. The reason I did this was because the first experience I had was a very profound moment for me. I experienced that thing which I had been missing in myself. I experienced a part of my being that had nothing to do with my social-psychological identity. It had nothing to do with who I knew myself to be. I touched a part of my being that was full and complete as it was. But I “came down” from that experience, as the terminology is used, and for six more years I tried every device I knew not to “come down,” but I continued to “go up” and “come down.”

In the course of that I began to study the literature. We had already done a translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, seeing the relation between the experience of physical death, spiritual death, and rebirth, and the experiences we were having with these psychedelic chemicals. In the course of this I underwent tremendous social-political changes in my life. In becoming a leading researcher in this field I got thrown out of Harvard for my research and so became a free-lancer. In 1967 I realized fully the limitations of this method of trying to achieve a state of unity with the universe through psychedelics. That is, I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know whether or not it could be done, but I knew we couldn’t do it because nobody I knew could do it, and I was working with people like Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith, and many other very sophisticated people — priests, rabbis, ministers, philosophers, musicians, and so on.

However, in the course of those years, as I said, I had become aware that there was a body of Eastern literature concerning the nature of the experiences that we were having. So in 1967 I went to India, on to the East, hoping that I would make some connection. In fact I was very fortunate and I did. I met a man who became my guru.

The relation between myself and my guru has stretched now over ten years. I met him in 1967. The initial relationship was augmented by the fact that he had obviously miraculous powers. He could read my mind and so on. He was an awesome being. But he also touched me with a kind of love that I had never experienced before. He was a simple jungle saddhu. He had a blanket, sat on a wooden table, had no possessions. He was not interested in having me around. He threw me out. He threw everybody else out that was around him all the time. He would disappear into the jungle. He allowed me to stay for five months at a temple that had been built by some of his devotees (he had no institution). I was primarily alone for five months. I saw him three times for maybe thirty minutes each time.

I came back after a year. I had been trained by another yogi in India in what’s called Ashtanga yoga, at least the beginnings of it. I started to practice yoga in the West. I tried to recreate my life in India in the West. And I found out that I couldn’t do it. When I started to go out into the world at all, when I left my little cell, I was totally vulnerable to the incentives that the West provided to live the “good life.” And I found myself going under slowly, slowly, slowly.

Maharaji, how did Christ meditate?” He closed his eyes and tears ran down his cheeks, and he opened his eyes and he said: “He lost himself into the ocean of love.

In 1970 I went back to India. I had better quickly tell you two relevant things. In 1967 when I was in India at the temple, there were only two books in the room that I was in. They happened to be in the room. There was nothing else but a table and a mat to sleep on. The two books were the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament. As a Jew I had never taken the New Testament terribly seriously. I was trained not to do that, as you understand. Since I had no reading material and I was basically an intellectual, I read these books from cover to cover a number of times. And I realized that what I was seeing in my guru, that love that he had touched me with, was the love that I felt in relation to Jesus. When I came to India the second time I had already written a book called Be Here Now and many Westerners found their way also to my guru. During this period of time, the two years I was in India in ’70 to ’72, my guru spoke repeatedly about Christ. Now here is the peculiar predicament. I had gone to India, a Jew had gone to a Hindu temple, to be introduced to the New Testament, and when I came to India the second time my guru talked about Christ.

This was a man who did not live very much in form. You couldn’t find out whether there was any human being at home in him at all. He would go in and out of planes of consciousness all the time. He would forget you even existed. He wouldn’t even know you a moment later. He read my mind at all times. There was nowhere to hide from him and there was no judgment. Once he said the following thing: “Christ died for Truth. He gave his life for the Dharma.” “Maharaji, how can you turn fear into love?” “If you trust in Christ, you’ll have no fear.” Maharaji said to a number of the Westerners: “Christ is your guru.” They said, “But Christ isn’t here,” He said, “Christ never died. He lives in everyone’s heart.” Many, many times he said to me again and again: “Be like Christ.” He said in regard to Truth: “You must tell the Truth, Ram Dass. Christ told the Truth. They killed him for it, but he told the Truth. Be like Christ, Christ died for love. Be like Christ. They slandered him but it didn’t matter.” And he said to us one day: “Meditate like Christ meditated.” “Maharaji, how did Christ meditate?” He closed his eyes and tears ran down his cheeks, and he opened his eyes and he said: “He lost himself into the ocean of love.” Once he looked off and he got into a kind of reverie and he said: “Christ died for humanity, but who will die for him?” and somebody said: “Maharaji, what can I do to gain a pure love for Sri Rama?” (Ram, being a Hindu form of God). Maharaji said: “You can get it by the blessing of Christ.” Maharaji said: “Serve the sick and poor, that’s what Christ did.” One time we were talking about politics. Maharaji said: “Lincoln was a good president.” I said, “Yes, Maharaji, why is that?” He said, “Because he knew Christ was president. He was only acting president.”

Now this is a peculiar predicament when we are talking about an East-West dialogue: I have gone to the East to find a jungle saddhu who is teaching me all about Christ. Maharaji gave me no forms. When I’d say to him: “Maharaji, how can I know God?” He would say, “Feed everyone.” “Maharaji, how do I awaken kundalini?” “Serve everyone.” “Maharaji, how can I know God?” “Love everyone.” He would just constantly remind me of these things. He gave no forms. He didn’t give any yoga. I learned Ashtanga yoga from somebody else, but he himself just sat on the table and was just there. He’d throw me out. I’d come and touch his feet and he’d throw me out. And all I know was that I loved this being and yet I couldn’t find him anywhere.

[quote text=”The only rule I live by is to be true to my own heart, to my own inner voice. My guru is within my heart.”]

So in the course of my own yearning to purify myself, I sought out and practiced in a variety of traditions. I have sat Zen, zazen, in both Kyoto and America, numerous times with Sasaki Roshi. I’ve studied Theravada Buddhism in Bodh Gaya, in Bombay, and in America many times. I’ve sat through many, many retreats. I’ve visited monasteries, Catholic monasteries, the Sufi tradition. In each case I have profited. I’ve quieted my mind, I’ve deepened my insight.

For a long time I was seeking: “Is this my way? Is this my way?” It was only later that I realized that my way was the way of what might be called Bhakti yoga, or yoga of devotion, and that my guru was my way. That meant that I saw my guru as many of you see Christ. That is, I saw him not as somebody, not as Jesus but as Christ. I saw him as a vehicle to see through, the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

At one point I was sitting across from Maharaji in the courtyard while everybody else was over at his feet, and I thought: “That isn’t what it is about. I can’t worship this body of him. That’s not what it’s about, it’s more than that. I really don’t care if I never see him again. I love him so much I don’t want anything else but to be with him and it doesn’t matter if I don’t see him again.” You can understand that paradox. At that point Maharaji sent an old man running over to me who touched my feet. I pranamed and said, “Why did you do that?” He said, “Maharaji said, ‘Go and touch Ram Dass’ feet because he and I understand each other perfectly.’” And what he was telling me was “Right on, don’t get caught in my form.” Then he threw me out again.

I represent a phenomenon that has happened in the West. If you want to look at it from the view of reincarnation, I would say that there are a lot of us who have been incarnated in the West and who are ready to touch the living Spirit, or who are touching it. The only rule I live by is to be true to my own heart, to my own inner voice. My guru is within my heart. I don’t have a set of rules to live by. The Ten Commandments are not something that have become obvious to me through my meditations. What I demand of the spiritual paths I practice is that they be real for me and feel right in my heart and that they be living Spirit.

There is an interesting paradox. The people that come to me, and they come to me by the thousands — when I run an ashram the waiting list is two hundred for every place and if I were to buy a monastery it would be full in a week — these are the same people that do not come to the Catholic monasteries now which have so many empty spaces. They aren’t coming to me because I’m offering anything other than what the monasteries are offering. Partly they are coming because they are still busy reacting against the same thing that happened to me in Judaism. I was given the forms but not the Spirit. And partly they are coming to me because they are sharing with me the fact that we must move at the rate we can trust our own hearts.

Now my heart tells me that I want a certain amount of monasticism in my life. I want a certain amount of seclusion. I have a van, I go off into the desert parks and live by myself. I just spent months by myself on a beach in Thailand. I spend much time each year all by myself, in the true monastic tradition I think. And yet I’m not ready to go and take a vow of monasticism and live in a monastery for the rest of my life, because it isn’t my dharma (“dharma” meaning “way”). I’m also involved in social action in prisons, with dying, in a number of places. And yet that isn’t my only way. I’m merely representing the voice of many people now.

What I need are places like the Barre [Massachusetts] meditation center. The chance to come to some place first for ten days, then a place to come for three months, then a place to come for a year. And maybe I will grow towards, or some of us will grow towards, becoming true monastics. Or maybe I will take that monastic experience and feed it back into my social action in a way where I will truly be a retreatant, a recluse, at the same time I am in the world but not of the world. These are stages of the journey and I’m just listening to hear what the stages are. Things that I’m ready for now, I wasn’t ready for two years ago. I wouldn’t have gone and sat alone for three months two years ago. I would do it now. There is a living process going on.

When I went to Mount Saviour [a Benedictine monastery near Elmira, New York], I was welcomed and allowed to live with the brothers and partake of food with them and be quiet. The most powerful moment I had was standing in line washing my cup and plate. It was a silent gathering, the seven offices and silence otherwise. I was standing in line behind a brother, and he had the plate in his hand and in the other hand he had the brush with the soap on it, and he was brushing his dish. I whispered to him (we could whisper in the line), “Brother, how long have you been here?” And he said, “Sixteen years.” And the image I have is the brush going around in the dish and “Sixteen years.” And the way in which he said it. There was no pride, there was no pity, there was no sense of accomplishment. It was merely a statement: “Sixteen years.” And that was a statement of a man’s dharma, his way to God. It was no better than any other way. It was a way to God and it taught me a tremendous amount. I thank Father Damasus (Winzen) and the whole Benedictine tradition for allowing me that moment. It fed me, in the same way that Zen and all the other traditions have fed me. I’ve never yet gotten back to Judaism, because it was too bitter for me. But I hope I will in this lifetime to make the circle complete.

[quote text=”I am not using rituals to get to the Spirit. I am using the Spirit to find the rituals as the vehicles for living Life in the Spirit. “]

I’ll end with just one little image. There was a “yagya,” a fire ceremony, at the temple in India. It was a nine-day ceremony. There were four Brahmin priests who were running the ceremony and there were laymen involved. It was required that everybody be involved for the full nine days. I was a participant-observer. On the seventh day, in the middle of a very sacred part, Maharaji called from the courtyard: “Sharma, come here.” Sharma was one of the laymen who had been in the ceremony for seven days. He got up and walked out of the ceremony. Maharaji said to Sharma: “Here take these boxes of food and give them to feed the people.” I was horrified. I said, “How could Maharaji disrupt the ceremony like that?” And I was told: “The living Spirit transcends the ritual.” Maharaji said: “The true fire ceremony is the serving of other beings.”

In a way the teaching I got was to honor the ritual and also not to be afraid to leave it. When I rejected the rituals of Judaism, I seemed to be rejecting all ritual. Now I find I’m coming back to honoring ritual again. But I am coming back through the Spirit. I am not using rituals to get to the Spirit. I am using the Spirit to find the rituals as the vehicles for living Life in the Spirit. That’s a different function for rituals than the one that the Church has used them for, for a long time.

I would like to share with you some things I remember about my discovery of the relationship between East and West — between all those who search for the Truth. These two areas of experience are closely connected in my life.

Br. David :   After these things Ram Dass has said, I’d much rather listen to more of his journey than tell you about mine. But I’m also very grateful that it was possible for me to come here. My heart has been with you ever since this meeting started. It is an extremely important thing that is happening here. So I’m glad to be with you and to be able to share some of myself. This is the most personal gift a person can give, to share of himself. I don’t normally do it. But I would like to share with you personally, for this is an important juncture in my life, and I see that there are so many of my friends here.

There are two important developments in my life that I would like to talk about. Both of them belong to the topic for which we are gathered this evening — monastic life, East and West. I would like to share with you some things I remember about my discovery of the relationship between East and West — between all those who search for the Truth. These two areas of experience are closely connected in my life.

I was born and raised in Austria. In Austria and in Germany about forty years ago, Zen Buddhism was often talked about among students and there were many books about it. And too, there was talk of yoga and other things, almost as it is now in America. Everybody was interested, but I myself never really got interested. I remember clearly saying that life is too short to do so many different things. If I had gone into Buddhism, I would have wanted to learn at least Chinese. And if I had gone into yoga, I would have at least wanted to learn Sanskrit. I wanted to do it radically. So I said I can’t even do one thing thoroughly, so I’ll stick with that one thing.

Another thing in my background that I have to bring in is that I have never had a crisis of faith, a typical adolescent crisis of faith. Maybe I have had it spread out through my whole life and I have it every day. But I’ve never had it at one time. The reason is that just exactly at the time when one would have this crisis of faith and would revolt against the establishment — which in my case happened to be a religious establishment, Austria being 99 percent Catholic — Hitler took over. Hitler was, of course, against the Church, so my adolescent revolt against the establishment turned out to be a going much deeper into my Catholic faith. My friends and I were deeply into that, and we converted our parents in the process.

Out of spite we would go to monasteries.

Out of spite we would go to monasteries. There was a certain suspicion attached if you went to a monastery. In groups you weren’t allowed to go there. But you weren’t allowed to do anything, so it really didn’t matter what you did. Furthermore this made going to the monasteries that much more exciting. In the course of this I came to know The Rule of Saint Benedict [a text of 73 chapters giving instructions for the formation, government, and administration of a monastery for the spiritual and daily life of its monks, completed by St. Benedict of Nursia, 540 A.D. — ed.].

I was enormously impressed by the Rule, but I never saw it lived. The monasteries I saw were generally in the Benedictine tradition, but for someone who was looking at them objectively, they had very little in common with the Rule. So what really turned me on was not the monasteries and not the monks, although I liked them, but it was that book! I liked the book so much. I liked it like a music lover likes a score that has never been performed. The monasteries I saw were not like the book and probably they never were, but just to read the Rule as a possibility — that really turned me on.

Then I studied psychology and years later ended up here in the United States. My family had come over here and I was the last one left over there. One of the first things I experienced here was talking with a friend about vocations. I told him that I liked the Rule of Saint Benedict and that if I had lived at the time of Saint Benedict I suppose I would have become a Benedictine. Then he told me that some Benedictines had just founded something in upstate New York, and it sounded like they were really going to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. But he couldn’t remember the name. Still, just on the hearsay that they were really following the Rule, I asked where Elmira was and found out that they had a bus going there from New York and I took the bus.

I arrived at Elmira in the morning but it took me half a day to find the monastery. I arrived at noon after hitchhiking for some time in the wrong direction and being totally lost. Even the neighbors did not yet know where the monastery was because the monks had just come there. That afternoon I was promptly put to work planting squash with Father Placid. That gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions, because Father Placid is not one who observes the silence too strictly. I just had two basic questions: “Do you really want to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict here?” That was the first one. And: “Do you have lay brothers or do all have the same status as monks?” “Yes, we really want to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. Yes, everyone shares the same status.” I asked one or two other questions, never met the abbot, he wasn’t there at the time, went home, wrote a letter, and went there. That is one decision I’ve never regretted.

Then my great sorrow, my great disappointment was that they did not really live the Rule of Saint Benedict! They lived something which I greatly admired. They lived in a loving community — Mount Saviour is a loving community. What more do you want? But it wasn’t anything like the Rule of Saint Benedict, at least for me. It was only “in the Benedictine tradition.” This conflict went on in me for years and years. Finally every time I opened my mouth they knew I was going to say something about the Rule. This eventually led to a traumatic situation where I finally decided, “You do your thing, and I will try to do mine.” It wasn’t a matter of leaving the community or anything like that. I belong to that community. Whatever you want to make of the vow of stability, it is very stretchable. It was very generous of the community, they could have thrown me out. But we agreed that if it can’t be strictly the Rule of Saint Benedict, I can come up with something else that is “in the Benedictine tradition.”

[quote text=”I read Dr. Suzuki’s The training of the Zen Buddhist monk and I couldn’t believe it! Details, little details out of the Rule of Saint Benedict! They didn’t borrow it, it just happened to be the same thing.”]

At that time I had occasionally substituted for the abbot when he was asked to talk about monasticism. My name got around and I was invited to speak to some club at Fordham that was interested in monasticism, but they were also interested in Eastern spirituality. I became afraid that I would have to face some Buddhist monks there and I didn’t know if they were even monks. You call them monks but are we the monks or are they? So out of an intellectual honesty I had to raise the question and so decided to read something about Eastern spirituality. I read Dr. Suzuki’s The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk and I couldn’t believe it! Details, little details out of the Rule of Saint Benedict! They didn’t borrow it, it just happened to be the same thing.

We shared a radical dedication to search for the Source of Meaning and to drink from that source.

Some of my friends found out about my discovery and said that if I really thought the two were so similar, I should meet this Buddhist monk who had just arrived in New York. This was Eido Roshi, Tai-san, at that time. So I wrote to him and we made an appointment to meet in front of the Metropolitan Museum. He later said that he suggested that we meet there because that was the only place in New York he was sure he could find. But at the time I thought we were meeting there so we could go in and talk about Buddhist art, if worse came to worse. Well we met at the museum and never went inside. We sat on a bench and it took one moment and we were totally on the same wavelength. We shared much more in that first hour that we were together than I would be able to share with, let’s say, an Irish pastor. I could share my deepest faith.

Very soon after that Swami Satchidananda came to New York. That was in ’66 I believe, and again it was the same thing. We had something in common that was central to both of us: we were monks. That was a tremendous discovery. Eido Roshi, Swamiji, and I got together now and then and that went on for quite a while. Then Thomas Merton said that this was something important, and asked us to put our meetings on a more permanent basis. That is how the Center for Spiritual Studies came about.

At this point my contact with Eastern monks led me to a deeper understanding of the monastic calling we have in common, and at the same time I began to appreciate the important role monks are called to play in the encounter between East and West.

The moment I came to know Buddhist and Hindu monks it became obvious to me that what we had in common was a methodical effort to deepen our awareness of that reality which gives meaning to life. We shared a radical dedication to search for the Source of Meaning and to drink from that source. This search and this drinking may be expressed and interpreted in a great variety of ways by the different religions. Yet, the experience as such lies deeper than all those interpretations. It lies at the basis of all religions and is their common root. Thus, I came to see monasticism as a basic human reality, and monastic vocation as a response more fundamental than one’s allegiance to this or that religious group or creed. A monk is not a super-Buddhist or a super-Christian, but a person drawn to the monastic venture who happens to find himself in a Buddhist or Christian environment. Of course, that environment shapes and interprets the monastic experience, giving it a specific form of fulfillment.

Obviously, the search for meaning in life is not the exclusive domain of monks. They devote themselves to that quest professionally, as it were, making it their primary occupation. But every human being longs for meaning as the only foundation of happiness. Monks, like artists and scientists, are merely spearheading our common human quest for meaning. But this is a venture in which East and West have always been united. When I came to realize that monks and lay people, East and West, are all engaged in one common spiritual venture, the question arose, how can the claims of Christ and of the Church be squared with these facts? Does not Jesus say: “I am the Way?” Paradoxically, this most exclusive-sounding claim is really a proclamation of the all-embracing unity of all the spiritual paths. Should a Christian who believes that Christ is the Way see him as merely one among countless other ways, the only one that is right among countless wrong ones? May we not rather rejoice that anyone who is spiritually on the way is on the Way, whether he has ever heard the name of Jesus or not? But what does it mean to be on the way? It means going forward. One who stops by the wayside and sits down is not really on the way. We must go. In doing so, we leave the way behind with every step: yet, this is how we stay on the way. It takes daring to live this paradox. The goal must be more important to us than the way. If we get so preoccupied with squibbles about the way that we forget to go forward, the way itself will get in our way, so to say. In this sense, even Jesus can get in our way, unless we let him lead us in the Spirit to the Father.

As Christians we are the ones who are going through Christ, through Jesus, the Christ. We have the Word that comes out of the silence to lead us. The Buddhists are not leaving the Word behind, for as long as they’re on the way, they’re on the way. And there is only one way. But they’re concerned with the silence out of which the Word comes, into which the Spirit leads. And the Hindus are concerned with the Spirit within which we understand the Word, in which we understand the silence, the Spirit that brings the silence and the Word together. When you give your heart to the Word and let the Word take you into that silence out of which it comes, then you understand. But it doesn’t stop there, because when you understand you express that again in another Word.

This led me to see that following the path is really a dancing. The dance is for me the image for everything: life, the universe, God, being holy, the monastic life — whatever, it’s “the dance.” If you watch from outside of a circle, the dancers holding hands and circling about would appear to be going in opposite directions. The people closest to you would appear to be going in one direction and those on the opposite side would be going in another direction. Totally opposite directions. And you cannot disprove it, because you see it. The moment you join the circle and hold hands, however, you know that everybody is going in the same direction. But you have to join the circle in order to see it. So when we give ourselves to that round dance going around in our hearts, then we dance with everyone. This interrelatedness of silence, Word and Understanding is a round dance, the Round Dance of the Trinity.

Abbot Armand:   Who would like to react to what has been said, talking from their own experience?

Ram Dass:   It seems to me somewhat naïve, David, to say that the Buddhists are primarily concerned with silence, the Hindus are concerned with the Spirit, and the Jews and Christians are concerned with form. Because what I keep finding is that every tradition is all of it. Certainly in Hinduism when you have explored thoroughly Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, and so on, you find it all. I was with Joseph [Goldstein, of the Insight Meditation Center] at Acha Cha’s monastery in northern Thailand, and I said to Joseph: “How long do you think we can hold on to you being a Buddhist and me being a Hindu? How long do you think it can last, because it is obviously disappearing right before our very eyes.” Just as David, Swamiji and Tai-san shared that space, we all are sharing the space of the formless and the form, and understanding a variety of ways. It seems to me now that this discussion of East vs. West seems very trivial. It doesn’t seem very significant any more.

Br. David:   I completely agree. In the Christian tradition itself you have the prayer of silence which is Buddhism and which Buddhists recognize. “John of the Cross is a Buddhist.” I’ve heard that many times. Then there are the gospel stories where Jesus sends the man to do something, and only when he goes and carries out the Word, and not just listens to the Word, but meditates on it and carries it out, in this doing the man sees and has the insight or revelation. Like being sent to wash in the pool — when the Word sends you, and you allow the Word to send you, and it really sends you and you do it, then you’re obedient. So I completely agree.

I don’t know why we keep talking about East and West. There are still remnants of course. There are still people who think this is East and this is West, and they will never come together. I know that Jung is one who said that East and West will never come together. And, although I am deeply impressed with Jung and often think, “Who am I to correct Jung on this point,” I must be faithful to my own insight.

Ram Dass:   I think he was wrong too.

Br. David:   But you see we are addressing ourselves now to Jung and there is still reason to talk in those terms.

Participant: I think you are addressing yourselves to the masses. The vast majority of the people still see East and West as separate.

Ram Dass:   But if in fact as you go deeper in, they are not separate, and the differences disappear before your very eyes, the question is, is it productive once you know this to then talk about East and West any longer? Or is it better to find within the Christian tradition all the aspects and breathe life into those aspects that may have gotten lost in the shuffle rather than going and buying some other tradition and bringing it in? That’s all I’m asking at this moment.

Participant: What about, Brother David, your sense of where monasticism is going today?

Br. David:   Well I’ve heard this term “lay monasticism” tossed around and I’m not quite sure if I understand it. But let me just bracket that word for a moment and give you my own impression very briefly. I look at it from two sides. I look at it on the one hand from the monastery and from my own personal experience, and the other side from the lay side and what is happening with lay people whom I know. There are pressures with regard to monastic life coming from both sides, from the inside and from the outside. These pressures are going in the same direction. The lay people say: “Give us a share in monastic life. And give us a greater and greater share in monastic life.” There’s a real pressure. Of course nothing in the thousands, but there are very many significant people who want to have a real share and do not just want to be guests. This puts a tremendous burden, for instance, on our monastery of Mount Saviour. We have not one day in the year when there are not quite a number of guests, and many days when there are far more guests than monks. So one way of getting out of this is by dropping the arbitrary distinction between guests and monks. Instead say that we have here a community, and it consists of some people who stay here all the time, and we have other people who come only for a short time. Some come for many years, and sometimes even make profession and then leave again, and others come just for a weekend or some short period of time. Make no distinction. Of course the ones who stay there for a long time may wear a different habit, if necessary, but all are one community. It’s not one that just caters to outsiders, which puts a tremendous burden on the monks and which never fully satisfies the outsiders. Why don’t we just have one community? That is one direction in which I see things developing.

And then the moment you allow some people to come in for a while, there’s no reason you can’t allow some people to go out for a while. Now I can fully understand the role of permanent stability of monks in the monastery, but there is also the problem with lowering the standards in the monastery, constantly to come to the lowest common denominator. We know what happens to a faculty in which there is tenure. It constantly lowers the standard. Now imagine a school of the Lord’s service (which the Benedictine monastery is by definition), in which the students have tenure! Imagine that! And that is what has happened to us. And therefore something has to be done about it.

I think that is what vows start to finally mean. They’re living statements of “This is going to see my vehicle through. I agree that if it turns out to be horrible, I’ll work with that horror rather than walk away from it.”

Participant: Isn’t the notion of permanent vows in the West as opposed to temporary vows in the East quite pertinent there? Whenever you think of monasticism in the West you have to think of permanent vows. There is no such thing as a temporary vow in the West. They won’t even accept the fact that something like this exists; whereas in the East, you can take a vow for an hour.

Br. David:   That whole question of vows is such a problem. I’m for permanent commitment. I don’t want to get into this discussion of permanent or perpetual vows, because I do think that anyone who gets into this thing ought to do it perpetually. It would be ridiculous to commit yourself temporarily. But this is a very different thing from committing yourself to a particular form. You see, we have gotten this mixed up. Commitment to the monastic path is not necessarily tied up with one particular form of life forever. Yet, commitment to a form has gotten more and more rigid; it has become for some people a commitment to every little detail, every little rubric as part of their vow. I think somewhere you have to draw the line. But whether you can draw the line from the outside or whether the person has to draw this line from the inside, from his heart — that might come together with Ram Dass’ idea of living more in the moment.

Ram Dass:   Again, coming back to the business of stages of evolution or readiness. I think what we’ve faced is a lot of people taking vows at the wrong level and taking vows out of “ought” and “should,” not out of the inner readiness. It’s like surrender that is real surrender is no surrender. It’s that kind of thing. It’s no vow, it’s merely a form for it to happen in. In the West we’ve seen it in marriages. We went from where marriage was ‘til death do us part and a statement under God, to the point where it became a social contract for convenience. And now we can see among the young people who are seeking, an attempt to hear what it means to make a long-term commitment. They are saying, “We will share karma and it is my dharma to work with you to awaken.” I think that is what vows start to finally mean. They’re living statements of “This is going to see my vehicle through. I agree that if it turns out to be horrible, I’ll work with that horror rather than walk away from it.” That’s the value of the vow. But that’s got to be done by a conscious being and we haven’t been conscious enough to make vows. So they have been made by unconscious people and then they are just what they are. They’re just stuff on paper that’s not worth anything. So it’s again a statement of our evolution as to what we’re ready for.

Participant: I think that the true nature of the vow of stability is implicit in our being here, that ultimately the vow means simply a permanent, profound commitment to following the Lord’s will.

Br. David:   I think it may even mean much more. It may really mean local stability for many people. And it may mean local stability for a person in different ways. Sitting always behind these walls, this is a valid form of stability. Even standing on a pillar—Simeon became a saint that way. That was valid. But there is also local stability that is interpreted in a different way. It is a local belonging, having local roots, whether that means always staying in that place or not. Don Juan in Castaneda’s books has this place for Carlos, and he says, “This is your place. You will die in this place. In the hour of death you will come to this place and you will dance your last dance in this place.” But that is not only a place in the desert that you can put on a map. It is also that, but you don’t have to stay in that place all of the time. There is something to local stability, but finally you have to interpret it in your own heart. All the vows have to be interpreted that way, otherwise there would not be a freedom of conscience. There comes a point where you may not go along with everybody else’s interpretation of a vow, and you have a right and a duty to stick by your conscience.

Ram Dass:    Brother David raised the issue before of the lowest common denominator, something dropping down and down, a problem which I appreciate. But it may well be that we have some categories that exist in which no human beings are ready to fit at the moment, which is the same thing you found with Benedict’s Rule. Maybe there will be certain higher levels of the discipline that will be held in waiting for people to evolve into naturally. Maybe we just have to have the courage to go back to the lowest common denominator. For example, when the Insight Meditation Center at Barre was started — that’s where people come for ten days or three weeks — when the people who were there on the staff for a year weren’t working, they would go and look at television or something like that. And I said to them, “What kind of thing is this? Aren’t you monastics? Why aren’t you doing it?” Then I saw that no one was ready to be a monastic at that time. That was a few years ago. Now we were sitting, Jack and Joseph and a group of us, and saying that that thing at Barre is wonderful as a mass thing, but it isn’t enough. Couldn’t we start a place where people could come for a year? Now that’s growing out of that lowest common denominator. It’s starting all over again and it may get up there. But maybe we’re going to get up and fall, and maybe that is the process.

Participant: I think that the real key to the future of humanity is whether we can articulate a system that will bring together humanity’s wisdom which will point absolutely to that essential insight in its eternalness and which we can plug into and say “This is the Truth.” I think you hit it, Br. David, when you said “Trinity,” and Ram Dass hit upon it when he spoke of his guru reflecting the wisdom of Christ. I think the reason why his guru did that was because his guru was awakened to the reality of the whole Christian mystery present in Hinduism. And the contemplative aspects of Hinduism are present in Christianity. So I think that it is a question of coming to that mystical awareness of the Trinity, not just in its theological ossification, but in the flowing mystery of that act of being infinite Truth in one act. We have to come to that.

Swamiji has said many times, “Keep digging. When you’re digging for water, keep digging where you are. If you dig long enough you will hit water.”

Br. David:   I’m sure most people will agree with that, but the great difficulty is, do you get to that outside an already established tradition? This is a real problem today, and I think Ram Dass is a spokesman for many people who are groping with that. I know as a rule of thumb for myself that I stick to my own tradition first, and if it works I save myself a lot of heartache. Swamiji has said this many times. “Keep digging,” he says. “When you’re digging for water, keep digging where you are. If you dig long enough you will hit water.” You may be just one foot from water but you get frustrated and start another well. But it doesn’t yield anything, you think, so you dig another well, and another, and another. I like this image of digging wells. If you dig long enough, you will eventually hit water. Wherever you are planted, bloom where you’re planted. Whatever tradition you are in, follow that tradition. If you are a Christian you will find Zen and you will find Hinduism. Nowadays you can hardly bypass them, even practically they will somehow come up.

Ram Dass:   I disagree with what Swamiji said to you, David, about digging in the same place. I agree that ultimately you will end up digging in a place, deeper.

Swami Satchidananda:   When you get tired of digging all over.

Ram Dass:   But that tiredness must be gone through, that must happen, that must evolve. You don’t bypass it because somebody says to dig in the same place. “You’re only good if you dig in the same place,” or something like that. It’s not an order, it’s an evolution. Now the reason that if you were a Westerner you would come into a Christian tradition is because it provides it all and provides it in the cultural context in which you grew up. That’s why I came back to find Christianity and Judaism and I did it through Hinduism.

Br. David:   I see. So you are saying that nowadays there are many floating around and digging here and there, but they have to go through this process until they themselves want to keep digging in one place — not because they are told to do so.

Ram Dass:   It has to come through the inner feeling of rightness of the individual. I’m not an institutional man. I don’t represent any institution as far as I know. And what I keep experiencing is that it’s got to feel right-on for me at the moment. I’m demanding that, and if it doesn’t I scream.

Swami Satchidananda:   We are talking about different traditions, different institutions. They are nothing but mere labels. What do you mean by different institutions, different traditions, different religions? They are nothing but labels. You must, Ram Dass, dig the same well with different labels, that’s all. You see, Ram Dass changed the labels but he kept on digging the same well. He had one thing to know. He had one goal to realize and he kept on working towards that. He used the Jewish tradition label for a while, another label for a while, now he’s using the Hindu label for a while. Nevertheless, the Spirit is the same.

This tradition, that tradition, I really don’t understand what you mean by tradition. In digging, as long as you satisfy your hunger it doesn’t matter what you eat. That is what I call “keep digging.” It’s not the labels.

What is the purpose of digging? What do you look for? You should know that the one who digs the well has the goal of getting water. What is it that we are trying to get, behind all these monastic traditions and this and that? What do we mean by monasticism? What is the main requirement for a monastic? What would you call a monastic? Can I get an answer?

Father Mayeul de Dreuille:   I’m very interested in comparing monasticism in the different religions. When I search for a definition of what is a monastic, it is just that given by Saint Benedict. That is, people who dedicate their lives to the service of God.

Swami Satchidananda:   The Hindus call it sacrifice, dedication, or renunciation.

Father Mayeul:   Yes, that is one aspect.

Swami Satchidananda:   It is the only aspect. Without the renunciation, without the dedication, without the sacrifice, no one is a monastic. Monasticism can be found even in a householder if he is dedicated.

Father Mayeul:   Yes, but the monastic dedicates fully his whole life and observes a certain withdrawal to lead this life. This generally implies celibacy.

Swami Satchidananda:   So married people cannot be dedicated?

Father Mayeul:   Yes, dedicated in their own way, and they can be holy people.

Swami Satchidananda:   I don’t think there are two ways of dedication, there is only one.

Abbot Armand:   I think we are trying to find an essential definition to something that is an historic phenomenon. There is a way of living our human life which is called in all traditions a monastic life. It’s a type of human life before being something which is Hindu or Christian or Buddhist. For the last two thousand years since Christ, there are a certain number of people who have lived their life in a Christian tradition in a type of life that we have called monastic. The line of demarcation between what is and what is not called monastic is very flexible. It has changed very often during the centuries. So there are a certain number of phenomena to which we have put the label monastic. First, each one of us has to be completely dedicated to Christ. A monk is not more fully dedicated than anyone else, but he is dedicated in a different way. And it is that way that we call monastic. For me, to be a monk, or to be a Trappist, means that I have received my call through a tradition. The tradition shows me a way of understanding God, a way of understanding the Bible.

But now to find out what is my way of being a monk today — there is not finally a tradition that can answer this one for me. I have to look at the Gospel through the tradition. I have also to listen to my whole being, my own being, to hear what God is saying to me in my heart today. This I have to discover by reading the signs of the times and by being among the society of today. So I have all of those through which God is speaking to me.

People have called “monastic” a certain way of living. It is the human search in any of those religious traditions. Now we can, by studying historically the type of life that we’re calling monastic, find certain common features in different religions. And then we can elaborate a certain kind of definition. But we don’t think just empirically. There is not something essential that says this is monastic and this is not monastic. At the beginning we were saying that the distinction between the East and the West has become obsolete. In the same way, I think that the distinction between the monk and non-monk is also becoming obsolete.

Br. David:   May I pick up a thread that is still hanging loose from what we were trying to say about labels and tradition? I would like to clarify my use of “tradition.” I’m not too concerned with this label or that label, but in each tradition there are certain things that come every year. As a monk, for instance, Christmas comes and you sing the “O Antiphons,” which are a certain antiphon sung before the Magnificat in the evening in the last days before Christmas. This last year I was sitting alone in my island hermitage at Christmas time, and one day after another all I could do was recite the “O Antiphons” to myself or do with them whatever I could do. But there was no choir there, there was nobody to sing them with. This is terrible. If you sing them every year, every year they are enriched. It is like a snail that builds its house and every year it adds more and more and lives in a more and more beautiful house. Now if you have grown up in a Catholic environment, for example, the prayers that you have grown up in a Catholic environment, for example, the prayers that you learn and the songs that you sing do so much more to your whole being than, sometime in later life, to have discovered, in a brainy way, something about Christianity. This is what matters about tradition for me, and this is again where monasticism for a time comes in.

As I look toward the future, the only places that I can see, in our type of civilization, in which some form of tradition can be cultivated, where every December 17 th you know what is going to happen, are the monasteries. It is like what the Benedictine monasteries did during the time of the migration of nations. They held Europe together. They provided centers of spiritual tradition and continuity. Similarly today, for example. I know that on full-moon days there is something important going on at Swamiji’s place. This is what I mean by tradition.

Swami Satchidananda:   You should protect those ways, no doubt. But if you have an absolute goal, you can use these aids, just as we use these robes. These robes will not make me a monastic. But wearing these robes will at least help to remind me of my goal as a monastic. They help me to find the way. They are an aid, as are certain disciplines, certain spiritual sayings, certain places and so on. These are all aids to the monastic lifestyle, but by having them you are not necessarily a monastic. However, people who really want to achieve the spiritual goal, should take some helps.

Participant:   When you walk into a church on the 17th of December and they’re singing the traditional hymn, or you look at the Swami and he is wearing the robes, or you look at the Trappist and he’s wearing the robes, or you look at somebody and they say the right word at the right time, they instill in you that feeling of the sacred place, that sacredness that you know is there. All of these things remind you of your search and that it is happening, that it does exist. And so you go to that Church or you go to the Swami or you go to that monk to instill again and again in you that feeling. You go to church on Sunday, maybe you receive the Eucharist every day, and it again reminds you that that place does exist. It doesn’t mean that you can do it continuously, but it is just a reminder. And that’s what we’re talking about when we’re speaking of monasticism for lay people. These people want to participate, and they want to have a continuous experience for a temporary period of time.

Reprinted from The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1977, Vol. 9, No. 2.

Br. David Steindl-RastTrust
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.