OXFORD (U.S. Catholic) – The Dalai Lama laughs, his dancing eyes made even brighter by the yellow hue of the large, square lenses of his glasses. He has been awake since 3:30 a.m., having started the day as usual—with four hours of meditation. In this inner search he taps into a fount of gleeful passion that is nothing if not contagious.
If meditation is the key to this man’s happiness, what does that say of the value and the power of contemplation? Is it better to sit in search for God’s presence, or to go out and aid those in dire need, bringing God’s love to the world? Can one necessitate the other? How does Christian contemplative prayer connect to the Buddhist search for understanding?
These questions, among many others, were explored during a colloquium on contemplative prayer featuring the Dalai Lama as keynote speaker, held in the United Kingdom at Oxford University’s Dominican-run study center, Blackfriars Hall.
In a broad, Christian sense, contemplative prayer is any form of silent prayer which strives to cultivate stillness, attentiveness, and openness to God. Such attentiveness then paves the way for Christian action in the world.
Since the twentieth century, there has been a renewed interest in the various forms of contemplative prayer. Its rise coincides with the rise of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and writer, was a champion of both contemplative prayer and dialogue. Merton and the Dalai Lama each visited each other and engaged in hours of discussion in the 1960s. “As a result, my eyes opened to the real value of Christianity,” the Dalai Lama says.
Years later, Christians and Buddhists still have a lot to offer each other. For the Dalai Lama, meeting with Christians to discuss contemplative prayer furthers two lifelong commitments: the promotion of human value and that of religious harmony. The most effective way of accepting the value of other religious traditions, he says, is to meet spiritual practitioners to listen, watch, and try to understand their deeper experiences. And at the heart of promoting human value is acknowledging every person’s fundamental need for love, he says.
“We are social animals…humanity, individual futures, depend on the rest of the community,” says the Dalai Lama. “So that’s, I think, one of the very, very powerful factors—to need love, compassion, affection—because love and compassion brings all together.”
Discovering God within
Deep meditation, then, serves to seek the truth within and is the only path to “real transformation,” the Dalai Lama says, that can “bring about the flowering of love in oneself.”
One of the Christian participants in the dialogue, Carmelite Father Eugene McCaffrey, speaks similarly, saying that “the heart of contemplative prayer is love, and love is the only reality that will ultimately change us. Only when we have found a greater and a deeper love can we let go of the lesser gods that ensnare the heart and hold it captive. Contemplation is the key to freedom of heart; it is a way of opening the heart to the embrace of God’s love.”
In the Christian tradition, God seeks us as well and draws us into the mystery of God’s love. Dominican Father Paul Murray explains that the goal of contemplative prayer is elusive but powerful.
“All of a sudden, then, we discover that the object of our search for God, and of our search for wisdom, is not some kind of passive, divine truth, something which we are able to assess and possess with our own minds,” Murray says, “but is rather something literally uncontrollable, a mystery of love our minds can hardly begin to grasp, an urgency of attention to our most basic human needs and wants, a divine compassion and care for that very aspect of our lives which seems most hopeless and most lost.”
By entering into and receiving this love, those who pray are then better equipped to serve others. The Dalai Lama describes his morning meditation as something like “charging your battery.” It involves, he says, “making some kind of proper shape of my mind and then some kind of pledge or determination that the rest of the day I should carry that kind of mental attitude—compassion, love, maximum help to others.”
From meditation to compassion
Indeed, Christian and Buddhists alike see a direct relationship between contemplative prayer and dedicated service in the world.
“The contemplative gaze penetrates to the heart of all human reality; it is the deepest source of energy and compassion for the world,” says McCaffrey. “This is the greatest gift the contemplative can give to the world: to see clearly, and to share that vision with others.”
A Dominican brother attending the dialogue agrees with this sentiment. “Prayer puts us right in the thick of the action,” says Brother Robert Gay. “We cannot pray deeply and then look on at the world impassively. If our prayer does not open our eyes to the needs of the other and take us beyond ourselves, all we are doing is navel gazing.”
A gathering of those so intensely engaged in prayer makes sense for an interreligious dialogue. “Prayer teaches us to listen,” Gay says.
Prayer, then, can teach us not only about ourselves and our relationship with a loving God, but can also unite those of all religions with each other in a search for a “happy, joyful, meaningful life.” And that, the Dalai Lama says, is our “real purpose” here on earth.
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What is contemplative prayer?
It’s difficult to give one simple definition contemplative prayer, since its practice goes back to the earliest centuries of the Christian tradition.
The earliest monks in the desert were known to use scripture as a basis for meditation and prayer, a practice commonly known as lectio divina. Later, we see the development of the “Jesus Prayer,” associated (although not exclusively) with the Eastern Church, a form of prayer which has simple repetition of the Holy Name at its heart. In the West, the 14th century work, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” advocated a practice of prayer whereby union with God was reached through emptying the mind of all images and thoughts, focusing on God alone.
Many major movements in spirituality, then, such as the Ignatian and Carmelite schools, developed distinctive ideas about the spiritual life that we might call “contemplative.” We also shouldn’t forget the importance of the Rosary as contemplative prayer, which has meditation on the mysteries of salvation at its heart.
Thomas Merton, figures in the “centering prayer” movement such as Thomas Keating and John Main, and many others were important in communicating and making accessible the practices of the contemplative monastic tradition, taking it to a wider audience.
“By meditation, I penetrate the inmost ground of my life, seek the full understanding of God’s will for me, of God’s mercy to me, of my absolute dependence upon him,” Merton wrote in “Contemplative prayer.”
Here are some resources to get started:
The Jesus Prayer
Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation. Martin Laird.
Reading with God: Lectio Divina. David Foster
Merton and Buddhism
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