A Skeptic's Path to Enlightenment podcast logo - meditator with headphones

Universal Love in Christianity and Buddhism with Greg Hillis

greg hillis headshot

subscribe for free AND GET the latest PODCAST episodes in your favorite player:

youtube video of podcast episode with Greg Hillis

Christian Scholar Greg Hillis speaks of the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism, the possibility of universal love, mystical experiences that break through to the beauty and interconnectedness of reality, and social activism that respects—and even loves—those we disagree with.

Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. In this episode I speak with the eloquent Christian scholar Greg Hillis on the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism. Dr. Hillis is an expert on Christian Mystic Thomas Merton and he shares many of Merton’s most profound ideas of the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity through the possibility of universal love; of profound mystical experiences that break us through to the beauty and interconnectedness of reality; of social activism that respects and even loves those we disagree with; and even the idea that a Christian God and the Buddhist Dharmakaya might be the same experience.

Scott Snibbe: Professor Hillis, it’s a pleasure having you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, I’m excited to talk to you about the Christian mystic and scholar Thomas Merton and what he might have to do with Buddhism.

[00:01:17] Greg Hillis: I’m glad to be here.

Who was Thomas Merton and why is he relevant to a modern skeptic?

black and white photo thomas merton
Thomas Merton

[00:01:18] Scott Snibbe: The first question I think is an obvious one. Who was Thomas Merton and why is he relevant to a modern skeptic?

[00:01:26] Greg Hillis: Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk; he was part of what is known as the Trappist order. I guess you could call it one of the stricter orders, but I think it’s better to refer to it as a contemplative order. It’s an order that began in the 11th century. Its focus is on silence, on a very simple life, the practice of meditation, Lectio Divina, holy reading, that sort of thing.

He really wasn’t brought up in any kind of religious background whatsoever. But he converted to Catholicism in 1938 and by 1941, he had decided that he wanted to become a monk in this very austere order. And the largest Trappist monastery in the United States is here in Kentucky at the Abbey of Gethsemani, which is about an hour’s drive from Louisville.

[00:02:17] Scott Snibbe: And was Thomas Merton a skeptic? If so, what was he skeptical about?

[00:02:23] Greg Hillis: He was a skeptic of American society and the goodness of American society. So, we’ll talk a little bit later about why he started exploring Eastern religions and Eastern spirituality, but what he was most bothered about was the ways in which American society was turning away from the spiritual and embracing ideas like mutually assured destruction.

We had the problem of racism—have the problem of racism and materialism. All of this led Merton to be deeply skeptical of the American experiment. So he was skeptical of that.

He was also, I would say, critical of the church or at least critical of many Catholics who tended to emphasize doctrine above experience and that emphasis on doctrine over experience then led to a rejection of other people’s doctrines, for example, or other religions.

I would say those were the main ways in which we could say that he was a skeptic.

Authority vs. experience in the Catholic Church

[00:03:26] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about that tension between doctrine and experience? I think the Catholic church is maybe the most hierarchical of the religions today. And that was part of the reformation too, when people wanted more of a personal experience with religion, with God.

[00:03:41] Greg Hillis: I think there’s a certain subset of people who really like clear parameters and clear rules and clear directives in terms of what they should think, what they should do, that sort of thing. And Catholicism provides that in spades. Which is fine, but if religion is seen as being only about that, then we have a problem. Certainly, Merton would say that.

And certainly I, as a Roman Catholic, would say that. What it misunderstands is the fact that the theology itself came out of the experience of communities. It wasn’t as if the doctrine came down from on high and just landed and we all just had to accept it.

It was that it emerged out of the spiritual lives of these individuals and of these communities.

And if you simply embrace the theology without recognizing the importance of the experiential component behind, the mystical component behind the theology, then you run into troubles.

And I think that’s the case, not only within Catholicism, but certainly when I speak to my Muslim and Jewish friends as well, that all theology emerges first out of the experience. And so Merton would say that too many Catholics put the cart before the horse on that point.

What is a mystic?

[00:05:04] Scott Snibbe: And can you define the word mystical? I think that word has a lot of different meanings, especially when non-religious people hear it.

[00:05:12] Greg Hillis: From a Catholic and a Christian perspective, a mystic is somebody who has a profound experience or continues to have profound experiences of the transcendent. In this case of God. I think we can talk about Merton. I think you can talk about him as a mystic because he had, I would say, at least three experiences that were beyond the ordinary. And when we talk about mystics, that’s what we’re talking about.

[00:05:39] Scott Snibbe: Could you talk about some of those experiences? I’m aware of at least a couple of them, one was on a corner right there in Louisville.

fourth and walnut sign thomas merton
Fourth and Walnut, photo: https://www.jmarshalljenkins.com

[00:05:45] Greg Hillis: Yeah, it’s not far from where I’m sitting right now. It was March 18th, 1958. He happened to be downtown in Louisville. He would always come into town for doctor’s appointments or he would often go to the public library downtown, to get books out and to catch up on the news and whatnot.

And he was walking in downtown Louisville at the corner of Fourth and Walnut—it’s now the corner of Fourth and Muhammad Ali—and he says that he suddenly realized that he loved all those people.

“They were mine and I was theirs and that we could not be strangers.”

–Thomas Merton

And he elaborates on this, he first wrote about it in his private journals. But then he elaborated on it and expanded upon it in a book called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in which he talks about the way in which he came to see everybody through what he says are the eyes of God. He came to see who everybody is in their inmost being.

 And he says, “There’s no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” And he gets to the point and says that, If we could only see each other that way all the time, like who we actually are, if we could only see each other that way, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed. The biggest problem would be that we would be tempted to fall down and worship each other; I love that line.

That sense of a love of the other, even of the stranger, that’s so profound that we would be compelled to possibly worship them because of how amazing they are and the value that they each have.

That’s his most famous experience.

[00:07:23] Scott Snibbe: When I read about that, it reminded me of the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva and the feeling of bodhicitta, which is this unconditional love for all beings and a wish to benefit all beings; it seemed very much the same type of experience: an experience of unbounded love. Is that how you think you’d describe it?

[00:07:42] Greg Hillis: Yeah, it was this experience of unbounded love, total compassion, and that’s interesting. I had never really thought about that connection with the bodhisattva before and the vows of the bodhisattva, but it’s interesting that after Merton had this experience, that was when he started to devote himself to social issues. Prior to that, from 1941 to 1958, he had been writing primarily about prayer, contemplation, and meditation; the things that a monk “should” write about.

And after 1958, he wrote a letter to Dorothy Day, the important Catholic who did so much work on behalf of the poor and against war in New York. And he said, I can’t write just about meditation anymore. I have to be focused on the great social issues that are going on. And of course, this was the time of the Cold War. This was a time of tremendous racial strife, the civil rights movement. 

And so here is this monk, in a contemplative monastery who, after this experience of profound love for all humankind, really devotes most of his attention from 1958 to 1968 to those social issues. And I should say it’s also after that, that he starts devoting himself really intensely to inter-religious dialogue.

[00:08:56] Scott Snibbe: This is another word worth unpacking. The word love is very overloaded and in this context, that love drove Merton to unconditionally accept all beings and to work for social action. Can you just describe a little bit what love might mean more in that context? I think we all have a kind of ordinary, individual definition of that word.

[00:09:18] Greg Hillis: He would define it very theologically; so I think he would arrive at the same place. There are many similarities between a Buddhist understanding of love and his understanding of love, but he gets there from a somewhat different path. In his Fourth and Walnut experience, what he describes there is that he came to see how profoundly loved each individual is by God. And that this love that God has for all humankind is a love that was made manifest in God becoming a human being, in the person of Jesus Christ.

He essentially says, I can’t but realize that each person has an inherent value and an inherent dignity and an inherent worth that I can’t ignore. From a theological perspective, each and every person merits a hearing; each and every person merits love. So that’s how he defines it. From his perspective, it means the giving of oneself on behalf of the other.

Social activism, debate, and dialogue

[00:10:24] Scott Snibbe: That’s really beautiful. The Dalai Lama talks a lot about this universal respect and universal dignity, the rights of all beings. How did Merton engage in social action? I mean that social activism and social action often put you into strong conflict with others. And we’ve seen that over the last 60, 70 years. How did he manage to stay compassionate and loving, and be a social activist?

[00:10:51] Greg Hillis: Part of the answer is that he was doing it while living as a hermit. So when you’re not actually engaging with people on a day-to-day basis, that makes interpersonal conflict fairly easy to avoid. But he engaged in it primarily through his writings. So he wasn’t out going on marches or doing protests or anything like that.

He really was the kind of backbone of various movements or provided some of the support for various movements that were going on, as a spiritual director, as somebody who was guiding various other people to come and understand what their role should be in the world.

And that did bring him into conflict; it brought him into conflict in the church. Merton, when he wrote against nuclear war and wrote against militarism, that was seen as very unpatriotic by many American Catholics.

And so here in Louisville, for example, they had a book burning where they destroyed a bunch of Merton’s books and the Catholic newspaper, the archdiocesan newspaper, published letters to the editor that were extremely critical of Merton. He got into conflict with his own order, who told him that he needed to stop writing on these sorts of things, at least temporarily. His method of engagement was through writing, but it did bring him into conflict.

[00:12:11] Scott Snibbe: How much of that conflict is healthy and reasonable? With the debates on abortion and left and right-wing and so on, especially around the election time, I went and dug a little deeper into the beliefs of Catholics in America and they were completely diverse. They actually were almost exactly the same as the population at large in terms of, for and against abortion, Republican and Democrat, and so on.

So burning books does seem like going a little beyond everyday debate, but what’s your take on the healthiness of that debate in the Catholic church?

[00:12:45] Greg Hillis: The thing that has always attracted me to Merton as a Catholic is his emphasis on dialogue. And the title of the book that I wrote on Merton, Man of Dialogue, is really central to his understanding of Catholicism and of religion in general. I think he thinks there would be a difference between argument and dialogue.

man of dialogue book by greg hillis

Now dialogue can include argument, but dialogue always begins from a recognition of the value and worth of the other person, even if they disagree with us. And it emphasizes the problem that we have in American society–not just American society–is that we tend to characterize those who disagree with us as evil or as ‘other.’

And that doesn’t mean that we have to agree with what they’re saying, but when we immediately characterize them as an enemy, then we’re denying their own humanity. And so he would emphasize that when it comes to any kind of conflict, what has to be at the heart of everything is that dialogical impulse; that first movement of love that he talks about it in terms of being able to say yes to people wherever we possibly can.

So instead of beginning from a place of negation–beginning from talking about where we are constantly disagreeing with one another–we start from where we agree and affirm and then progress from there. On that topic, when I teach my undergraduate students about Merton, they really grab onto that because they see that kind of dialogue is not what is going on in our society today.

And they see the value of this. And of course, it has value not just in the political realm, but also when it comes to dialogue between those of different religions.

What does Eastern spirituality have to do with Catholicism?

[00:14:28] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned that earlier, how Thomas Merton started to explore Eastern spirituality, though he remained a Catholic. Can you talk a little bit about how and why he did this?

[00:14:38] Greg Hillis: He had influences very early on in his life. So even before he became a Catholic, he had the most fascinating upbringing. When he was at Columbia University, before he became Catholic, he had made friends with a number of other people who were also students at Columbia and one of them–somehow Merton doesn’t explain what the connection was–had a connection with a Hindu monk from India. Brahmachari was his name and he had been sent by his abbot to the World Congress of Religions in Chicago. 

And he was sent there without any money, anything like that, and ended up getting there too late, the thing had already ended. And so he just stayed in Chicago, and finished a Ph.D. in Hindu philosophy, because I guess he could, he was quite an amazing person. 

Anyway, he started living with Merton and his roommate for a while. And Brahmachari was the one who actually pointed Merton towards Catholicism. By this point, Merton had been reading Aldous Huxley and had been introduced to Eastern religious thinkers through Aldous Huxley.

And Brahmachari said, That’s fine, but who you should also read is Augustine and Thomas à Kempis and read these Christian writers. And so from the very beginning of Merton’s Christian exploration, he had been influenced by non-Western religions, by this Hindu monk.

By the time we get to the late 1950s, Merton is starting to recognize that, number one, there are real problems with American Catholicism prioritizing doctrine over experience, as I had mentioned earlier. And through the figure of the Zen master D.T. Suzuki, he started reading a bunch of stuff about Zen Buddhism and said, There are so many points of connection between my own understanding of contemplation and what D.T. Suzuki is talking about, when it comes to Zen Buddhist practice and experience.

So it’s from there that he really starts exploring not just Buddhism, but also Sufism and Jewish mysticism; and he really sees that there can be points of connection between the various religions.

Who were The Desert Fathers (and Mothers)?

[00:16:56] Scott Snibbe: You write a little bit about a parallel that Merton made between Zen Buddhism and these early Christian mystics called the Desert Fathers. Can you explain who the Desert Fathers were and how they’re related to Zen Buddhism?

the desert fathers art
Who were The Desert Fathers (and Mothers)? photo: http://www.cambridgeblog.org

[00:17:12] Greg Hillis: Sure. So the Desert Fathers, I should emphasize that they weren’t just fathers; there were also women involved. So the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I should say.

The problem is that oftentimes their voices get muted and they don’t come through as clearly. So we know a lot more about the Desert Fathers than we do about the Desert Mothers. But nevertheless, there were clearly both in the desert. 

And what happened is that in the fourth century, even beginning in the third century, Christians in the cities were feeling a need for deeper spiritual exploration, a deeper sense of closeness to God, but also a real call to a more ascetic existence: fasting, solitude, silence, and whatnot.

And there’s no better place for that kind of solitude and ascetic existence than the Egyptian desert. So that’s where these people went. In fact, there’s a famous book about desert monasticism by a guy named Derwas Chitty, The Desert A City. Because there were so many of these desert monks and nuns who went out into the desert to live these lives of solitude.

In the late 1950s, Merton was working on a translation of some of the sayings of the Desert Fathers. So the way that we know about the Desert Fathers, as well as the Desert Mothers, is that there were these sayings that were passed on orally, of their teachings. And sometimes they’re very profound, sometimes they’re very funny. Sometimes they’re utterly incomprehensible; almost similar to a Zen koan. But what comes through very clearly is the absolute simplicity of their spiritual life. It was a bare bones, very simple existence that they had.

And as he was translating these sayings of the Desert Fathers, he was reading D.T. Suzuki in the midst of translating. And he wrote his first letter to D.T. Suzuki and said, I’m working on this translation of the Desert Fathers, I think you would love it. And would you write a preface for the book? 

D.T. Suzuki was interested, but it ended up not quite working out. But it was that connection that he saw between the Desert Fathers and Mothers and Zen Buddhism that really compelled Merton to make that initial contact with a prominent Zen Buddhist.

Is the Buddhist idea of dharmakaya a synonym for God?

[00:19:28] Scott Snibbe: There was another one of these transcendental experiences that Merton had in Sri Lanka and the language you use when you write about it is all Buddhist language. He said,

Everything is emptiness; everything is compassion, dharmakaya.

–Thomas Merton

Can you talk about that a little bit? In our tradition, we talk about dharmakaya sometimes as a kind of ground for all being. But is dharmakaya a synonym for God, the experience of God, or what is it, and what was that experience?

[00:19:59] Greg Hillis: So Merton goes to Polonnaruwa where there are these magnificent giant statues of the Buddha. There’s the Buddha in parinirvana and the Buddha in meditation and whatnot and Merton approaches the statues.

buddha in parinirvana
Buddha in parinirvana, photo: https://www.artsy.net

He takes some photographs, which are really beautiful photographs. And, apparently, as he’s taking these photographs, he all of a sudden has this really incredible experience. He says,

Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual half-tide vision of things; and an inner-clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. 

–Thomas Merton

Then he refers to dharmakaya. He said, All problems are resolved and everything is clear simply because what matters is clear, the rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya. Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

I think from Merton’s perspective, reading that, he equates dharmakaya here to his understanding of God, that God is imminent in all things and is present in all things. The problem is that we don’t see it.

He was the novice master at the Abbey of Gethsemani from 1955 to 1965; teaching the new monks about spiritual life. And his very last talk that he gave to them, before he moved to become a hermit at the Abbey, it’s a beautiful talk called, “A Life Free from Care.” 

And in it, he talks about how, if we can withdraw ourselves away from all the things that tie us up, all the cares that we have that make it so that we’re waking up with that to-do list in our heads. And we’re waking up with all the things that are bringing us inner-conflict and distracting us from the beauty of everything around us. In other words, everything that sort of keeps us from being able to see things as they really are. He says, the purpose of the monastic life, spiritual life, is to withdraw from those things.

This is almost a direct quote. He says, I know from experience that if you can do this, that God, the world, ceases to become opaque. God starts shining through everything, in people and in places and in things and in events. And so that’s what I think happens here at Polonnaruwa, the scales fall off his eyes again. I think they did at the corner of Fourth and Walnut as well, and he’s able to see things as they really are, charged with the presence of God.

Direct experience of God in Catholicism and Christianity

jesus on the cross in church

[00:22:51] Scott Snibbe: And what is the role of a direct experience of God and in Catholicism and Christianity in general? Obviously, there was a reformation and a great tension about the personal relationship versus a hierarchical relationship.

[00:23:05] Greg Hillis: We’ve always in Catholicism had these mystics and the church has sometimes been largely suspicious of them. But it’s also interesting that almost always, the mystics ended up getting canonized by the Catholic church.

So we recognize, Okay, we were suspicious of them, but it turns out, oh man, we were wrong about them. And so for example, somebody like Saint Teresa who had these incredible experiences–there’s that one statue of Bernini, the Ecstasy of Theresa that you can see in a church in Rome, St. John of the Cross, these figures are really important.

That direct experience of God is something that Catholicism recognizes as a genuine possibility. There are always worries that maybe it will lead you to do or believe strange things. But generally speaking, the history of the church is a history filled with these mystics who end up becoming profound teachers.

[00:24:02] Scott Snibbe: In terms of direct experience, meditation is one of the ways to have that. Can you talk about the role of meditation for Christians today? It hasn’t been a big part of most aspects of Christianity for some time.

[00:24:15] Greg Hillis: In the Western church, it hasn’t been. We’ve had figures who emphasize meditation. For example, St. John of the Cross, we have the cloud of unknowing, the writer of the cloud of unknowing in the 13th century. 

We have had these figures, but generally speaking that specific practice of meditation was really preserved in the Eastern church, Eastern Christianity. And related in no small part to those Desert Fathers and Mothers who developed forms of prayer and meditation that came to influence later Christians. So within Christianity, particularly Eastern Christianity, what became very important was meditation upon the name of Jesus.

They would have these prayer ropes that essentially–all religious traditions really have those–are a means by which to count to your prayers. They would have these prayer ropes and they would emphasize the importance of breathing and then they would pray the name of Jesus or something called the Jesus prayer. “Lord Jesus have mercy on me.” Right, over and over again.

And the Eastern church emphasized that it’s through such meditation, over long practice, that one could actually attain a vision of what they call uncreated light–maybe what Merton might call dharmakaya–this sense of God’s presence in all things. That form of meditation has become more popular as well in the Western church, in Protestantism, as well as in Catholicism.

Integrating meditation into college classes

[00:25:43] Scott Snibbe: And you use meditation in your classes, right? How does that manifest?

[00:25:49] Greg Hillis: I do.

I’ve been teaching at Bellarmine for 14 years, and I’ve noticed that over those 14 years, the anxiety levels of my students have just been increasing exponentially.

And every study that I read, points to the fact that especially among our young people–and among all of us–rates of anxiety and depression are just increasing like crazy. 

That’s due to a whole bunch of different factors; I don’t pretend to have the answer to any of that. But what I do know, is that there are all kinds of religious traditions–Buddhism, the Sufi tradition in Islam, Jewish mysticism, and then my own Catholicism–that emphasize the need for silence in the midst of an increasingly noisy world. And what students feel is like a buoy in the ocean; they don’t have control over themselves. They are tossed about by the waves of whatever’s going on in society, whatever’s going on in the city, all these sorts of things. And so the possibility of just sitting in silence, in meditation, helps them to recognize the importance of being in the present moment.

I have a diversity of students in my class, so I don’t just teach Christian meditation. I talk particularly about meditation focused on the breath; that’s the form of meditation that I use, where I focus my attention on the breath. And as my attention goes somewhere else, I bring it back, or I focus on the Jesus prayer, that sort of thing. 

Every class begins with about 10 minutes of silence, and then I’ve assigned 10 minutes of silence every day to the students that they then have to write about. They find it difficult at first but I found some of them end up adopting longer periods of time because they see it as being so important. 

But it seems to me that you shouldn’t study theology and religious studies without at least delving into some of what the great religious traditions have had to say about the spiritual life and particularly about contemplation and meditation. So that’s essentially what I do.

[00:28:02] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about your own personal experience too? Because as a professor of religion, you never know whether the person believes in any religion. What’s your level of relationship to Christian belief and how did you stumble into meditation–or deliberately walk into meditation–and integrate those in your life?

[00:28:27] Greg Hillis: Yeah, I am a Roman Catholic. I’m a very happy Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t mean that I’m uncritical of the church or anything like that.

But I generally tend to see and focus my attention on the beauty and goodness that I find within the church. That doesn’t mean I’m putting my head in the sand when it comes to the other issues, but it does mean that I’m beginning from a position of gratitude rather than anger or frustration.

And yeah, I attend mass weekly. 

I got introduced to meditation when I was really young; I had a teacher for church history class who was interested in the history of Christian spirituality. I had never learned anything about the contemplative life. As you said earlier, in the Western church, we’re taught doctrine and law and not this important facet of the spiritual life. 

He introduced me to that and I’ve really just been exploring it ever since. I spend a lot of my time reading the great Christian mystics. Right now I’m reading a book called The Philokalia, there are five volumes of it; the first volume is of some of the Desert Fathers, who emphasize the importance of meditation and of silence.

The Philokalia

Then in terms of my own practice, what I’ve adopted is the Jesus Prayer and the meditation that essentially emerges from that. I endeavor to spend 20 minutes in meditation in the morning and 20 minutes in meditation in the evening

I have to be honest that doesn’t always happen. I have three kids at home and finding silence sometimes can be very difficult. But particularly over the pandemic, I’ve found my own practice of meditation has really deepened. So for me, that silence really is critical and important. 

Meditation for Catholics and Christians

[00:30:08] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and do you think this is a broader trend among Catholics or Christians adopting meditation into their spiritual practice?

[00:30:15] Greg Hillis: Yeah, I would like to think so. The thing that always bothers me is when my students say, especially my Catholic students, I went to 12 years of Catholic school. Why am I only learning about this tradition now?

 It would be nice if our churches taught our young people the depth of the spiritual life. Because I also think that’s important for relating to other religions and there are a number of different ways which that’s important.

But I do find that especially with the pandemic, that forced isolation that happened, young people were–and a lot of other people–grappling and looking for spiritual practices that could sustain them in the midst of what was, and is, a frightening time. So I do think that it’s more prevalent and I hope it is anyway.

Acknowledging the differences between Buddhism and Christianity

[00:31:01] Scott Snibbe: With these interreligious dialogues, we often talk about the similarities between religions. The Dalai Lama talks about this all the time, because he loves the interreligious dialogues. And he talks about the similarities being primarily in ethics. There isn’t too much disagreement about basic ethical behavior, but there are differences between religions.

Particularly in Buddhism, there isn’t a concept of God. But there’s this concept of emptiness, like a kind of radical interdependence at the root of all existence. I wonder if you can talk about the differences between Buddhism and Catholicism and how we can benefit from exploring differences, without giving up our individual beliefs.

[00:31:39] Greg Hillis: I think that’s so important. There are two different, mistakes that happen when it comes to inter-religious dialogue. One is the mistake of fundamentalism, which is, I’m right and you’re wrong; and therefore there’s no need for dialogue.

The other is the path of relativism, which wants to diminish all the differences that actually exist between religions to sort of say, Well, we’re all basically just the same. The latter is obviously much more tempting to most of us. But the reason why that’s such a problem is that it does diminish the uniqueness of different religious expressions and different religious beliefs and practices.

And it’s interesting, that the Dalai Lama talks about ethics. Merton, when he looks at interreligious dialogue, didn’t really comment that much on ethics. What he emphasized was contemplative experience.

He actually felt that the people who are most well-equipped for interreligious dialogue are the monastics, the ones who are deep into the spiritual life. Because while everybody begins from a different starting point–theologically, culturally, and whatnot–there are certain commonalities when it comes to the experience of the transcendent or the experience of emptiness, the experience of whatever, that Merton saw as being fundamental to our relationship to one another.

For Merton, one of the reasons why he explored Buddhism so intensely is because he thought the United States, America, and American Catholics needed to understand what they were missing. They needed to understand that there is this wonderful tradition related to traditions we ourselves have and we can find points of connection. 

However, our obsession with doctrine and rules is preventing us from a more rich conception of each other or rich conception of the world and even a rich conception of God.

So he wouldn’t want to erase the differences whatsoever, but I think he would say that we can definitely learn from one another, particularly on the experiential level.

[00:33:47] Scott Snibbe: I really appreciate you saying that. That’s a really great point. The teacher I’m closest to has said a number of times, referring to dharmakaya in particular, that experience of dharmakaya for a Buddhist practitioner is probably the experience that a Christian has when they feel a deep connection to God.

It is a different point that the commonality between religions goes beyond ethics and morality to that ineffable direct experience. There are no words that can really convey that experience. So it’s logical there’d be many different words and ways of describing an indescribable experience.

[00:34:24] Greg Hillis: Yeah, one example for Merton was that he engaged in a really wonderful exchange of letters with a Sufi in Pakistan named Abdul Aziz. Those are beautiful letters because they’re genuine. And both of them acknowledge where they’re different, in terms of their beliefs, doctrines, and whatnot.

But when it came to their own practice of prayer and of meditation, those are the only letters in which Merton explicitly tells somebody about how he prays and meditates. He even says, I don’t normally tell people about this but I think it’d be valuable for our discussion. It’s on those points, that we can really come to a deeper understanding of one another.

[00:35:10] Scott Snibbe: What did he describe, in terms of his own experience?

[00:35:13] Greg Hillis: This was at the hermitage; he talks about how he spends about three hours in meditation–because he could–in silence. But he also endeavored to describe it in ways that his Muslim correspondent would understand: an experience of the one God. Not so much emphasizing the Trinity, but emphasizing the unity of God and then his own inner unity as well. Those are my favorite letters of Merton’s to read.

Healthy forms of social action

[00:35:37] Scott Snibbe: I wanted to come back to something you said about healthy forms of debate and social action because unfortunately intolerance is a somewhat universal quality today. It’s not limited to liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Muslims, anything else. It seems to be a somewhat universal approach to debate. 

Can you recommend any kind of mental exercise, maybe something you do on the cushion, maybe something you do in your everyday life, when you’re faced with someone you disagree with? How would you approach that in a way that promotes healthy debate rather than more divisiveness?

[00:36:14] Greg Hillis: From my own perspective, I think about it theologically and in the form of my own meditation.

I essentially endeavor, when I am faced with somebody with whom I disagree–or even with my kids when we get into conflict with one another or other family members–to recognize the presence of Christ within each one of them.

That each and every person, whether they be strangers or my 11-year-old, is manifesting God to me in some way.

My wife always talks about this in terms of–and I’m not very good about this–she says, What we need to do is take a beat. So before we react, the mental exercise of just simply breathing and meditating on the presence of God in the other is what is most helpful and what I most often need to do.

Innate goodness and innate evil

angel and devil halloween costume kids
Are people innately good or evil?

[00:37:11] Scott Snibbe: That’s really nice. And it sounds just like the notion of Buddha nature in Buddhism, which is the innate goodness in all people. Also the capacity to change, another way of seeing Buddha nature and innate goodness is actually that everybody is changing and everyone has the capacity to change. I think that it sounds like the same idea as seeing God or Jesus in someone, is seeing their nature.

[00:37:34] Greg Hillis: Yeah, and recognizing that they’re good.

It’s so easy to be tempted to fall into the notion of innate evil and see people as innately evil. But dialogue, as Merton describes it and he talks about this in terms of non-violence, is rooted in the idea that everybody is and has an innate goodness and a capacity for change.

Exactly what you’re talking about when it comes to the notion of the Buddha Nature.

What does Original Sin mean?

[00:37:59] Scott Snibbe: I really like that. How does that relate to original sin though? We have this idea of original sin and the idea of innate goodness is very encouraging. Is that a tension or a misunderstanding?

[00:38:09] Greg Hillis: Original sin is still sometimes taught this way in Catholic school, as this sense of guilt that has to be erased from us. A better way of thinking about original sin is more just that we’re born incomplete. 

From a Christian perspective, we’re created for contemplation, we’re created for union with God, but we live in a world in which we’re not contemplatives and not united with God.

I think saying we are incomplete is a better way of talking about it because then it doesn’t begin from the position of people being innately evil or sinful.

[00:38:49] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s easy for us all to say we’re imperfect and we have to grow.

[00:38:54] Greg Hillis: Yeah, it hopefully fosters that kind of humility that then allows us to relate to others more easily; because we have to recognize we don’t ourselves have a purchase on goodness or truth.

[00:39:05] Scott Snibbe: Is there anything else you’d like to add, Dr. Hillis?

[00:39:08] Greg Hillis: No, other than I just really enjoyed having this conversation.

[00:39:11] Scott Snibbe: I really have too. I was raised Christian and I’ve certainly felt parallels in my life, but also a lot of questions about contradictions. Our conversation helped resolve some that I’ve had in my whole life, especially what you just talked about with original sin. So it was very heartwarming. I really appreciate your approach and how articulate, clear, and warm-hearted you are. Your students are lucky to have you.

[00:39:33] Greg Hillis: Well, thank you. That’s very kind and I really appreciate the invitation.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by donations that keep all our content free and ad free. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.


Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Marketing Direction by Jason Waterman
Digital Production, Marketing, and Social Media by Isabela Acebal


Related Posts


Log in



Sign up and receive our free “Simple Ten-minute Meditation”