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  • Writer's picturepetermtyler

Acharya Fr Thomas Kochumuttom CMI on Buddhism

After a recent visit to India I would like to post here part of a Festschrift I have written for Fr Thomas Kochumuttom CMI, Acharya of the Jeevandhara Ashram in the Himalayas. The extract below is part of the Festschrift which hopefully will be published in the next year. Until then I hope it will give some idea of the remarkable work of this remarkable man. I aim to write some more about this so watch this space -

Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu!


I write this chapter to celebrate Fr Thomas’s rich life and ministry during which I have been able to reflect on two things.

First, the life and wonderfully rich ministry of Fr Thomas. When I was approached to write this chapter I immediately and enthusiastically said ‘Yes!’. During my travels to India over these past few years I have always received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from Fr Thomas and his community at Jai Harikhal. When things have been tough going these past few months I have often returned with affection to my memories of our morning Sanskrit classes together when Fr Thomas would share his extraordinary knowledge and insight into the Indian sacred texts. Shortly afterwards I would see him in the chapel of Jai Harikhal immersed in deep contemplation, to all eyes like an ancient arhat or rishi of old. But the crowning moment of the time at Jai Harikhal must have been the morning liturgy celebrated in the chapel where Fr Thomas would lead worshippers easily and with delicate facility moving from English to Sanskrit to Latin to Hindi. These impressions will last a lifetime.

The second issue that has preoccupied me these past few months, in my capacity as a practising psychotherapist, has been the rising tide of mental health issues that has resulted from the pandemic lockdown. Social media is awash with talk of ‘civil war’ and Pope Francis in Rome declares this an ‘epochal moment’ as he convenes a commission to co-ordinate the Church’s response to the pandemic.

Accordingly, this chapter aims to bring together these two preoccupations. In particular I shall use Fr Thomas’s pioneering work on the nature of Buddhist-Christian dialogue to outline some ways we can seek to heal the anger of our troubled world ‘at the foot of the Cross’.

The Spirit of Dialogue

The primary texts I am drawing on for this chapter are the lectures Fr Thomas gave at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram (DVK) in Bengaluru in 2014-5 in honour of the Servant of God Fr Canisius Thekkedara CMI, later published as Christian Life Amidst Many Religions by Dharmaram Press (2015). I myself had given these celebrated lectures the year before (published as Picturing the Soul: Revisioning Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction, Dharmaram 2014) so it seems very fitting to carry on this conversation initiated by the scholars of DVK, one of the shining institutions of Indian theological and spiritual life.

One of the central themes of Fr Thomas’s lectures was how inter-religious dialogue could be of relevance for Christian life today, which is why I have chosen to dialogue with these writings in this chapter. I have been asked in particular to comment on Fr Thomas’s dialogue with Buddhism in these texts. This I am very happy to do for, as Fr Thomas makes clear, after the 1965 Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, all Catholic Christians are called upon to dialogue with, and respect, the diverse religious traditions of humanity. Fr Thomas has taken this injunction very seriously indeed (in fact it could be argued that a great proportion of his life has been dedicated to this cause) and this is no better displayed than in Christian Life (hereafter CL).

Before entering into the discussion of Buddhist psychology that Fr Thomas proposes it might be worthwhile, as Fr Thomas does himself in his lectures, to set down some ‘ground-rules’ for the dialogue. As with any meeting, conference or human encounter, we need to have some ground-rules – so it is with interfaith dialogue too.

The first thing to note is that Fr Thomas, unlike many other contemporary scholars of interfaith dialogue (e,g. John Hick, Hans Küng) is not proposing a syncretic meeting of religions. He argues for the distinctive nature of the religions, and that dialogue arises from difference:

Genuine dialogue does not mean that one does not have anything to state in disagreement with the partners. Inter-religious dialogue basically being a sharing of faith, it should be taken for granted that the partners’ faith-convictions can be different or even opposed to one another, which then are made to interact in a spirit of openness and respect in the hope of arriving at a better understanding and deeper appreciation of one another. (CL: 25)

In this respect Fr Thomas accords with the 2001 notification issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the essence of interfaith dialogue:

It is consistent with Catholic doctrine to hold that the seeds of truth and goodness that exist in other religions are a certain participation in truths contained in the revelation of or in Jesus Christ. However, it is erroneous to hold that such elements of truth and goodness, or some of them, do not derive ultimately from the source-mediation of Jesus Christ (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 2001:2.4)

Any ‘watering down’ of the revelation and fullness of Being that is Christ is meted short shrift by Fr Thomas:

I may not have correctly understood these great men [Küng, Hick, Panikkar et al]. However, as far as I can see, to speak of Jesus Christ as merely normative or a mere cross section of God’s agapeing, or as one of the incarnations of the theandric reality (Christ), is a betrayal of Christian faith. (CL: 25)

The dialogue of religions thus becomes a manifestation of ‘the depth of the Divine Mystery itself’ (CL: 34/5) and how humans have responded to that mystery for thousands of years. This then is the spirit with which Fr Thomas approaches the dialogue (one where ‘religious pluralism needs to be welcomed, with thankfulness’) and it is the spirit with which I approach the dialogue with Buddhism in this present chapter.

Suffering in Buddhism

Fr Thomas begins his discussion of Buddhist psychology by stressing that within Buddhism there are three aspects to suffering/ duḥkha – the first of the Four Noble Truths, ‘All is suffering/ duḥkha’:

1. duḥkha-duḥkhatā – ‘sufferings as such, for example, bodily pains and aches’ (CL: 116). This would include simple sensations of pain such as toothache. This has been translated as ‘intrinsic suffering’ (see, for example, Buddhaghosa Visuddhimagga xvi: 34 - 35).[2]

2. vipariṇāma-duḥkhatā – ‘psychological sufferings arising from changes in circumstances, for example disappointments and anxieties’ (CL: 116/117). This second type of suffering arises from the fact that the world is impermanent. That which we attach and cling to - parents, loved ones, favourite places - will inevitable change and often leave us. In Buddhist tradition this is normally expressed through the short-hand adopted by the Buddha himself – the suffering of birth, old-age, disease and death. This is often translated as ‘suffering in change’.

3. saṃskāra-duḥkhatā – often called ‘suffering due to formations’ it has been called by Williams ‘the duḥkha of conditions’ (Williams 2000:42). As Gethin puts it:

We are part of the world compounded of unstable and unreliable conditions, a world in which pain and pleasure, happiness and suffering are in all sorts of ways bound up together. It is the reality of this state of affairs that the teachings of the Buddha suggest we each must understand if we are ever to be free of suffering. (Gethin 1998:62)

Now what interests me in Fr Thomas’s interpretation of suffering in this third class is the emphasis he gives to the psychological, or as he calls it ‘unconscious’ aspects of duḥkha; he refers to saṃskāra-duḥkhatā as ‘sufferings with roots in the unconscious’ (CL: 117). As a psychologist myself this gives us rich ground for speculation as to how we might access Buddhist psychology to help with the healing of psychological conditions, such as anger. For Fr Thomas, the first two aspects of duḥkha are ‘comparatively superficial’. Pain such as this is difficult at the time (unless it is long-term chronic pain) but, Fr Thomas suggests, we can hope for relief from this. Likewise with the ‘pain’ of anger. Many of us (myself included) have a short temper and fuse. When we are hurt or insulted we can quickly and harshly lash out. However Fr Thomas would, I think, put this sort of instinctive reaction (which most of us, I dare say, have, whether we admit it or not) into the first two categories. However, what is more interesting, and worth investigating is the third type, saṃskāra-duḥkhatā. In Fr Thomas’s words, this ‘third type of suffering is a deeper one and is more difficult to overcome’, he continues:

This kind of suffering is traced to some experience of remote past. One may have long forgotten the experience, but the impressions it has left in the deeper layers of the mind would continue to cause pain. (CL: 117)

Buddhagosa in his exposition of this area mentions the sufferings that begin from conception onwards. There is a duḥkha rooted ‘in the descent into the womb’ where during our nine months of gestation we are exposed to the churning of the mother’s stomach and bowels, being unable to stretch and ‘being cooked like a pudding in a bag by the heat produced by the mother’s womb and steamed like a dumpling of dough’ (Buddhaghosa Visuddhimagga xvi :37). These levels of suffering thus lie in the deeper layers of the mind which are referred to as the ālaya-vijñāna, a notion that emerged in the Sanskrit traditions of Indian Buddhism, of the so-called ‘store consciousness’. For all practical purposes, states Fr Thomas, ‘the ālaya-vijñāna is the same as the unconscious of modern psychology’ (CL: 117).

[1] I am grateful to Prof. Sarah Shaw for looking at and commenting on an early draft of this chapter. [2] Throughout his writings on Buddhism Fr Thomas normally refers to the Sanskrit names for the various Buddhist terms, as befits a great Sanskrit scholar. I have largely followed his lead here, however as some of the secondary literature prefers the Pali terms I have left these where they stand in quotes. Where there is significant divergence between the two sets of terms, e.g. skandha and khandha, I have given both.

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