An interview with Brother Wayne Teasdale
“We have a universal responsibility to speak out when we see injustice, oppression, and the abuse of human rights, the rights of the earth, and other species,” writes an impassioned Brother Wayne Teasdale in his book The Mystic Heart. “Personally, I find the silence [on the crisis in Tibet] disturbing and morally indefensible; it indicates a lack of courage and moral strength that hides behind considerations of prudence and discretion.”
There are few souls as gentle as Brother Wayne Teasdale, “lay monk” and pioneer of the interfaith movement, who also speak as stridently and compellingly as he does about the necessity for all spiritual leaders to actively respond to the crises facing the world. But for Teasdale, the result of any true and deep mystical experience must be an active and engaged response to the cries of a suffering humanity and an embattled earth. Brother Wayne Teasdale has devoted much of his life to facilitating understanding, respect, and practical cooperation among spiritual leaders. Serving on the board for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, he was instrumental in bringing almost eight thousand people of different faiths together for the 1993 Chicago Parliament, an event that led, among other things, to the pivotal signing by two hundred spiritual leaders of Guidelines for a Global Ethic. He also organized the Synthesis Dialogues, an interreligious, interdisciplinary forum moderated by H.H. the Dalai Lama, designed to bring key figures from diverse professions together to explore the value and implications of mystical experience. And, together with His Holiness, he helped to draft the influential Universal Declaration on Nonviolence.
Teasdale’s spiritual calling began almost fifty years ago when, as a child, one warm summer’s eve, awed by the infinite splash of stars in the dark sky, he decided that when he grew up, he was going to be a priest. Raised in a Catholic family in Connecticut, his early years were full of faith and optimism, but the tumultuous times of the sixties and the cruelty and inhumanity of the Vietnam War sorely challenged his nascent conviction in the immediacy and goodness of God and plunged him into what he describes as a three-year-long “dark night of the soul.”
In the midst of this period, questions unresolved, Teasdale enrolled in a small Catholic college in New Hampshire run by monks of the Benedictine Order. The monks were associated with St. Joseph’s Abbey, a monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, whose abbot, the highly revered Father Thomas Keating, ran contemplative retreats for laypeople that Teasdale attended. Teasdale’s time with Keating had a profound impact on him, reopening him to the mystical dimension of life. During those days, he writes, “The divine completely took me over . . . I was often taken out of myself, my consciousness enlarged, and perceptions of everything altered from within. Space and time were suspended—I couldn’t think, analyze, remember, imagine, or speak. I hovered between fear and awe. . . . Saturated by [the Divine’s] incomparable love and mystery, all I could do was to assent to its presence within, around, and through me. . . . Fired with urgency and expectation, I gave myself to the divine.”
With renewed commitment, Teasdale dedicated himself to his spiritual practice. In 1973, he struck up a correspondence with Father Bede Griffiths, a spirited and innovative Benedictine monk who drew on Eastern meditative traditions to enrich his Christian path of charity and selfless service, and eventually Teasdale spent two years at Griffiths’s Benedictine ashram in southern India. Life in India opened his eyes both to the depth of Eastern mysticism and to the very pressing reality of overpopulation, deforestation, environmental degradation, and resource depletion. Taking a renewed set of renunciate vows under Griffiths, Teasdale dedicated himself to a life of simplicity, service, and ‘interspiritual’ pursuit.
Deeply convinced that solutions to problems of the magnitude facing our world today lie in genuine mystical experience, experience that transcends the boundaries of religion and culture, Brother Wayne Teasdale has become a tireless spokesperson for the practical power of profound spiritual realization. “It is the inner life that is to spark the change in consciousness that will permit us to advance,” he emphatically states. “My own inner, or mystical, process . . . accounts for the passion with which I speak.”
AMY EDELSTEIN: Brother Wayne, you feel very strongly about the tragedy of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and are one of the leading Christian spokespeople for the cause of the Tibetan people as well as a personal friend of the Dalai Lama. You’ve gone so far as to say that the response of the world’s spiritual leaders to the situation in Tibet is the critical test of our times, “a test that will measure the mettle of our planet’s spiritual leadership.” This is quite a bold statement. Why do you feel this way?
WAYNE TEASDALE: Let me clarify. It is equally true that the tragedy in Rwanda is a test, because it’s a challenge to be able to have that kind of concern for people in Africa, or in Kosovo, or in the Middle East, and so forth. But there’s something unique about the Tibetan situation. There’s such a parallel between what is happening to the Tibetans and what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. And now there’s an opportunity for the world and the spiritual leaders to respond. That’s number one. Number two: The Tibetan struggle is a nonviolent struggle. This is not true of these other struggles. The one between the Palestinians and the Israelis is fraught with hatred, violence, vengeance, and incredible irrationality, and also, both sides have many advocates in other nations. But the Tibetans don’t. Their nonviolent struggle is a continuation of the ideal that Gandhi put forth, which is an incredibly important resource. I really think that what Gandhi did is a form of revelation. I believe that through his life and teachings, the Divine gave us some vital resources and skills that are going to serve our planet for millennia. The example of the Dalai Lama and the struggle of the Tibetans continue and deepen and reinforce what was gained through Gandhi, and therefore, the Tibetan cause must be supported. And then thirdly, this is an incredibly precious culture. It’s reached a very high point and we mustn’t lose it.
AE: How do you feel that taking a stand with the situation in Tibet will galvanize the world’s conscience?
WT: Well, let us say, for instance, that the Vatican gets off the fence and takes a leadership role. It will focus the world’s attention, and slowly governments will begin to realize how serious this is in terms of the moral development of the planet. We can’t have business as usual; we have to solve this. The religions coming together would be a powerful step forward in bringing this tragedy to an end. I believe, in the fullest sense, what I said before about this being a test. I don’t mean that it’s just a challenge. I mean it is a test.
AE: You’ve said that if we fail, if we don’t respond, then it’s a sign of a real lack of evolution on a moral and spiritual level.
WT: Yes. Individuals may be capable of evolution but maybe not the whole of humanity, as represented by institutions like the Catholic Church. They just don’t seem to have that moral level of awareness. Still, there are some voices in the Vatican that are looking for a new vision, and I think that the Church could be extremely effective and influential if it put its genius of organization to the service of the interfaith movement for justice, ecology, and peace.
AE: You passionately advocate the coming together of individuals from different spiritual traditions as an essential step toward solving the pressing problems of our times. Why do you believe that interfaith dialogue can bring about global change, and how do you envision it working on a spiritual and practical level?
WT: So many of the wars in history, thousands and thousands of them for the past five, six, seven thousand years, have been related to differences in Truth claims. If we can evolve beyond that problem, then I think there’s some chance that we could retire the whole institution of war and begin to focus on the peaceful evolution of humanity. If the ecological crisis, for example, is to be solved and if we are to promote genuine justice and thus bring real peace to the planet—and with it the possibility of improving lives on every level, not just economically, socially, and politically, but spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually—then, just on a practical level, we need to have all of the religions working together. I feel that slowly the interfaith movement is replacing the old habits of mutual isolation, hostility, competition, conflict, and ignorance of one another’s traditions with habits of mutual trust, mutual respect, and friendship.
AE: In your book, The Mystic Heart, you write about how deep mystical experience will engender the depth of care and perspective that will enable us to truly respond to the crisis facing the world, to the needs of the whole. Can you speak about the relationship between mystical experience and the arising of compassion?
WT: Well, in my experience in the mystical life, I find myself becoming more and more aware of the Source as “inherently warmhearted.” The vast consciousness that is the Divine is not a cold analytical intelligence—it emanates from its very core a concern. Heidegger said that the essence of being is concern, and this is what many of the traditions have tried to communicate, even the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha said that once a person lets go of the focus on self-interest, then they see that all is emptiness and all is compassion. And that compassion, that ultimate concern that Heidegger is talking about, that agapic or selfless love, is the connectivity of all sentient beings. It’s the glue that holds it all together.
AE: Are you saying that this profound care for the whole will naturally arise from the realization of the Source, or from what Buddhists call “emptiness”?
WT: Yes, absolutely.
AE: The teachings of Jesus present an interesting challenge to the interfaith movement. While Jesus preached compassion and tolerance, he himself was first and foremost concerned with defending the truth. He raged at the Jewish priests who were destroying true spirituality through their corruption, and rather than sitting down with them in dialogue, he stormed into their temples and overturned the tables as a statement of his uncompromising stand. In the spiritual endeavor, if the goal is first and foremost ecumenical tolerance, then it’s likely that such a broad net will be cast that important distinctions will not be made and the result will be compromise on the most crucial matters. How do you reconcile the movement to accommodate all religions with the imperative to stand for what is true?
WT: That’s a very tricky question. Our work in interfaith doesn’t require us to submerge our differences or to sacrifice what one has seen or experienced of ultimate truth or ultimate reality, but it does require us not to be quite so overbearing. It’s not a competition. It’s a question of sharing what we know and what is our position, our faith, our experience—just not in a militant way where we lose compassion and perspective. Why was Jesus so angry with the money changers in the temple? Because they were misguiding the people. The temple was supposed to be a forum for relating to God, and it had become a very worldly place of commerce. They had distorted what that was all about; that’s why he got so angry. I think it was like a therapy to shock them out of that kind of behavior.
AE: With the crisis facing the world, it seems like we have to do a lot of shocking at this point.
WT: Right. Exactly. We need to do it. But I don’t think we can shock George W. Bush out of unrealization. He seems to be fixated on it!
AE: At previous times in history, revolutionary thinkers believed that changing our social or political structures would bring about the changes we so desperately need to make in the world, but nowadays many visionary futurists are convinced that in order to change the world, we must first change the human heart. At an event connected with the recent State of the World Forum, you exclaimed, “What we need is a spiritual revolution!” What do you mean by that, and what do you believe will bring that about?
WT: Let’s put it this way: Christ said two thousand years ago that before kingdoms change, the hearts of people must change. The revolutionaries have not seen that; they’ve focused on the external. And we have seen the disasters that have occurred, for instance, with Marxism. The problem with Marxism is that it never looked at theagents of change. It only looked at the process of change. It never looked at the transformation that needs to occur in the individuals who foment change. They defined the human in the abstract, and they ended up killing the human in the concrete. I really feel that what we need is awareness, and you can’t get that simply through a political process or an ideology or a slogan. It’s something that has to engage what is deepest in the human. We have to have a holistic, integral kind of development that isn’t simply intellectual or moral but that is also deeply mystical. A kind of development that engages one with the Source itself, the Source that is that pure love, pure concern, pure sensitivity, and which then allows that to radiate out into our actions and our attitudes and our perceptions and how we relate to one another in the world. I think that only spirituality will bring about that self-knowledge that will allow us to purify ourselves and to shift to a focus that protects the interconnectedness of all life and all being. So I like to put it this way: The real revolution, the definitive revolution, is the spiritual awakening of humanity. The real revolution is one that goes to the radical core of human limitation and raises that up to transformation, to development. Unless that happens, the seeds of corruption are still going to be there—and the seeds of inequity, of exploitation, and of a selfish, greedy existence that neglects the welfare of the masses and of the planet.
AE: What do you see as the most pressing crisis facing our world community at this juncture in history?
WT: The ecological crisis, and the kind of change required in humanity that would allow us to resolve it. It’s a crisis of the environment, but it’s also a crisis in the style of life that people are living. On the one hand, there’s an agreement that we have to do something about the environment, and on the other, there isn’t really the will to change our style of life to allow a resolution. I see that as the most pressing threat and the highest moral priority because, as Thomas Berry says, if the life raft, which is the earth, goes, what use will our economic system be? Or even our spirituality? Take, for example, the heavy use of fossil fuels, the rise in the rate of global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, the deforestation in the Amazon. Just the cutting down of trees in the Himalayas is causing massive flooding in Bangladesh every year. All of these factors add up. We need to really simplify how we are living and using resources. We don’t know enough about the resilience of the planet in restoring itself and its ecosystems, but we are aware of how much damage we’re doing. If you take the American dream and you apply it to six billion people, there’s no possibility of our species surviving. We will destroy what we have left around the planet.
AE: Given the severity of the crisis, do you feel optimistic about the future?
WT: Well, clearly the situation requires a fundamental change in how we live, and right now, given our spiritual and psychological understanding and how we view our individual responsibility for this situation, it’s hard for me to be optimistic that people will make the sacrifices necessary for us and for other species, other sentient beings, to survive. But I think optimism can be found in our spiritual technologies. I would suggest that we utilize those technologies, those forms of spirituality that transform attitudes, that open minds and hearts, and that change consciousness. One of the great practical values of a spiritual transformation is that it does possess the resources to change humanity, and to change humanity in time.
AE: You obviously feel very passionately about bringing about a real change in the world in our lifetime. What makes you care so much? Can you describe the turning point in your own life when you realized this passionate concern for the state of the world?
WT: I think the concern has come out of my spiritual life and out of my years at attempting prayer. You know, it’s very strange. I used to wonder whether I had any compassion. I wasn’t sure I understood it. One of the turning points for me was when I was walking around a lake in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I saw a mother and her two sons, maybe seven, eight years old. The two kids were throwing stones at these swans, and one of them hit one of the swans. And I instantly felt an incredible, overwhelming grief at the suffering of that poor swan and also anger at what the children had done. I realized in that moment that, yes, I guess I do have compassion.
Brother Wayne Teasdale (1945-2004) devoted much of his life to facilitating understanding, respect, and practical cooperation among spiritual leaders. As a lay monk and pioneer of the interfaith movement, he spoke stridently and compellingly about the necessity for all spiritual leaders to actively respond to the crises facing the world. Serving many years on the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, he was instrumental in bringing almost eight thousand people of different faiths together for the 1993 Chicago Parliament, an event that led to the pivotal signing by two hundred spiritual leaders of Guidelines for a Global Ethic. He also organized the Synthesis Dialogues, an interreligious, interdisciplinary forum moderated by H.H. the Dalai Lama, designed to bring key figures from diverse professions together to explore the value and implications of mystical experience. And, together with His Holiness, he helped to draft the influential Universal Declaration on Nonviolence. Teasdale studied under Father Thomas Keating of St. Joseph’s Abbey, and later became a devoted student of Father Bede Griffiths in his Benedictine ashram in southern India. His books include A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life and The Mystic Heart, and he also wrote numerous articles on religion and mysticism. Brother Teasdale received his M.A. in philosophy from St. Joseph College and his Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University.