In his article “The Paradox of Non-Duality,” Fr. Thomas Keating observed that expressions of nonduality are to be found in every major religion. These expressions will be couched in different forms, of course, with Buddhism being a notable deviant from the theistic religions. But the distinguishing mark of nonduality, he says, is simply the discarding of the false self. Beliefs about what remains afterward are a different matter entirely.
This perception of commonality between religions might have shocked earlier generations. The statement of Vatican II that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions” (Nostra Aetate, October 28, 1965) needed to be stated at the time only because it was not obvious. Nowadays it might seem to be so obvious as to be redundant.
So what makes Christian nonduality, Christian? Simply that the nonduality is lived within the context of the historical Christian religion. This explicitly excludes, for example, a former Christian who, having discarded the false self, converts to a different religion or to no religion at all.
Since nonduality is a literal translation of the Sanskrit advaita, there are those who understand Christian nonduality to mean only the intersection of Christianity with the advaita vedanta of South Asia. But Fr. Keating’s definition points to a broader understanding. It would encompass, for example, Christian Zennists such as Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle and even the home-grown Christian nonduality of Bernadette Roberts (though she herself rejects the label of “nonduality” and disavows any affiliation with a tradition other than pure Christianity).
There is no doubt that, whatever definition you prefer, the Breton Benedictine Henri Le Saux (1910–1973) was a ground-breaking figure. In 1949, Fr. Le Saux visited the leading light of twentieth-century advaita, Ramana Maharshi. In Ramana’s presence, Fr. Le Saux underwent two life-altering experiences. These caused him to rethink his entire theology.
The next year, he and Fr. Jules Monchanin founded a Christian ashram, which they named Shantivanam, or “Peace-Forest.” Fr. Le Saux took the Sanskrit name Abhishikteshvarananda, meaning “Anointed-Lord-Bliss,” Abhishikta being a Sanskrit equivalent for the Greek “Christ” or the Aramaic “Messiah.” This name was later shortened to Abhishiktananda, or “Anointed-Bliss.”
Witness to the Fullness of Light is a collection of reflections on Abhishiktananda’s life and thought presented at a Monastic Interreligious Dialogue conference held at Shantivanam in 2010. It was edited by William Skudlarek and Bettina Baumer, and published in New York by Lantern Books.
The story begins even before Fr. Le Saux’s arrival in India. Monastic missions had already concluded they must express themselves in culturally appropriate forms. What this would mean in practice, though, was something still to be discovered.
When Fr. Le Saux came to the country, he was thus obliged by circumstances to invent something new.
By contrast, Fr. Jacques Dupuis had arrived in India to join a theological college that already had a long institutional history. Its mission was to impart rather than to innovate.
As chance would have it, in the late 1960s, Fr. Dupuis came across Fr. Le Saux’s “something new” through his writings, and in the early 70s, the two met in person.
Fr. Dupuis took up the term “non-duality” to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. He would go on to draw attention to Jesus’ “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John and ask the important question of what Jesus meant when he used the word “I” in these statements.
For his part, Fr. Le Saux was never trying to be a systematic theologian. He was simply trying to understand his experiences with Ramana, and he had as much difficulty doing this with Hindu texts as he did with Christian ones. Ultimately he had to conclude that the root of the problem was that his experiences were outside the world of words and concepts. And yet, despite his double-belonging on the level of form, he remained faithful throughout his life to the Eucharist, in which he found an endless source for contemplation.
Both physically and intellectually, Fr. Le Saux was a wanderer, often finding himself painfully far from the beaten path. Eventually, his settled life at Shantivanam felt too confining for him, and this was what led him to hand over the reins to Fr. Bede Griffiths in 1968. Letting go of Shantivanam freed him up to spend the final five years of his life as an absolute wanderer and renunciant.
Christian nonduality might seem to be a rarified and intellectual pursuit. What remains after reading Witness to the Fullness of Light, though, is an impression of Abhishiktananda’s very human struggle as the first pioneer in this uncharted and often difficult territory.