Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

General forum on Mahayana.

Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Wayfarer » Wed Jan 30, 2013 1:31 am

Some time ago now, noted Buddhologist and author of a well-regarded text on Mahayana Buddhism, Paul Williams, converted to Catholicism, something which he later described in detail in his book called The Unexpected Way.

I stumbled on an account that Paul Williams gave of his conversion, on a Catholic website.

I discovered, to my surprise, was that his main concern appeared to be the fear of being reborn in the lower realms - specifically, as a cockroach.

He wrote:

Cockroaches surely have projects for the future, to get enough food, poison humans, or whatever it is cockroaches happily spend their lives doing. It'll be fun, once you get used to it. Of course, being a cockroach still means you must leave your friends and family, but then in life we often leave our friends and family. Our family and friends may be separated from us by exile, war, quarrels or whatever. Or if they die, instead of you, it has the same effect. So why in this respect should we be more terrified of our own death, than of the deaths of our loved ones? Moreover as a cockroach you will have lots and lots of new friends and family, many, many cockroach friends and cockroach family to replace the ones you have lost. You'll get used to it. It's not so bad, not half as bad as you thought. And being a cockroach is not nothingness. It's not like a great empty void. It is a life, too. You will still live.


Nevertheless, he says that:

What is so terrifying about my being ...reborn as a cockroach is that it is simply, quite straightforwardly, the end of me. I cannot imagine being reborn as a cockroach because there is nothing to imagine. I quite simply would not be there at all. If rebirth is true, neither I nor any of my loved ones survive death. With rebirth, for me – the actual person I am – the story really is over. There may be another being living its life in some sort of causal connection with the life that was me (influenced by my karma), but for me there is no more. That is it – end of it. There is no more to be said about me.


He also says that:

I began to see that if Buddhism were correct then unless I attained enlightenment (nirvana) or something like it in this life, where the whole cycle of rebirth would finally come to a complete end, I would have no hope. Clearly, I was not going to attain enlightenment in this life. All Buddhists would be inclined to accept that as true concerning just about everyone. Enlightenment is a supreme and extremely rare achievement for spiritual heroes, not the likes of us – certainly not the likes of me. So I (and all my friends and family) have in themselves no hope. Not only that. Actually from a Buddhist perspective in the scale of infinite time the significance of each of us as such, as the person we are, converges on nothing. For each of us lives our life and perishes. Each one of us – the person we are - is lost forever. Buddhism for me was hope-less. But was I absolutely sure Buddhism was true? As St Paul knew so well, Christianity at least offers hope.


The conclusion of his article emphatically rejects the notion of re-birth and re-asserts his Catholic convictions.

What puzzles me about this whole piece is the way it diverges so completely from my understanding of the questions surrounding re-birth and Nirvana.

First, it seems to pose a false dichotomy - either you 'attain nirvana' in the sense of supreme enlightenment, or you might be reborn as a cockroach, or presumably in some other horrible situation. It seems a very absolutist view of the idea. Then, it takes no account of the idea of beings that are voluntarily born out of compassion for all beings. Plausibly, Jesus Christ was one such being! And, Christian doctrine - admittedly, Calvinism is more explicit in this regard - has it that countless beings are destined for 'eternal damnation'. Unbaptized infants and those who have had no chance to 'hear the word', and many other classes of people are so destined. In traditional Catholicism, in fact, everyone outside the fold was destined to this fate. So why he depicts it as a 'religion of hope', I find a bit hard to fathom.

Anyway, I was a bit flabbergasted by this whole article. How anyone who has written a well-regarded text on the subject of Mahayana Buddhism could form such views is, I suppose, a lesson in the shortcomings of scholasticism. The many nuances and possibilities in the Buddhist view of life - and of compassion! - seem to have completely escaped him. (Not to mention the concrete evidence of past-life memories gathered by researchers such as Ian Stevenson.)

I should also add, I don't feel the least hostility to, or even a great deal of alienation from, Christianity. There are many Christian and Catholic authors, philosophers and teachers for whom I hold great respect. I don't feel that their beliefs are 'hopeless', as Williams says that Buddhist views must be. In my view of things, all religious teachings are indeed 'parts of the elephant', the whole of which is beyond the unenlightened mind. This allows for a variety of views, a world in which the various ways and teachings co-exist.

I would be interested to hear others' reactions to this piece.
Learn to do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind ~ this is the teaching of the Buddhas
User avatar
Wayfarer
 
Posts: 1931
Joined: Sun May 27, 2012 8:31 am
Location: Sydney AU

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby futerko » Wed Jan 30, 2013 2:38 am

His "well-regarded text" did posit the existence of attâ, a true self, so I doubt he really understood Buddhism that well. I guess if it's a choice between born again as a cockroach or a born again Christian, I know which I'd choose.
we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar - Nietzsche
User avatar
futerko
 
Posts: 993
Joined: Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:58 am

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Wed Jan 30, 2013 2:57 am

Well, sounds like he bascially finds Anatta too scary to comprehend, and changed religions due to that. Everyone wants to keep what's near and dear to them, even when the overwhelming evidence is that you can't. It's not surprising to me, when I explain the concept to non-Buddhists they are generally mortified, I guess some Buddhists also just can't let go. In some ways Buddhism is really not overtly comforting in the way other religions are. That's not really the point though, to be comforting.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
User avatar
Johnny Dangerous
Global Moderator
 
Posts: 2577
Joined: Fri Nov 02, 2012 10:58 pm
Location: Olympia WA

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Indrajala » Wed Jan 30, 2013 5:37 am

I think he's grasping onto a personal identity that isn't there. He's afraid he'll lose it, wherein there really is nothing to lose.
Flower Ornament Depository (Blog)
Indrajāla's Contemplations (Blog)
Exploring Classical Chinese (Blog)
Dharma Depository (Site)

"Hui gives me no assistance. There is nothing that I say in which he does not delight." -Confucius
User avatar
Indrajala
 
Posts: 5959
Joined: Fri Feb 12, 2010 3:19 pm
Location: Japan

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Wayfarer » Wed Jan 30, 2013 6:30 am

I actually can't accept that view, either. I don't think it provides an answer to the problem of agency. I know the debate about self and no-self is interminable, but we are born beings, and it seems to me that as such, karma requires a being or person who is the agent of actions and to whom the consequences of actions accrue. I think to be awakened is to indeed transcend the sense of separated-ness that constitutes the born being, to go beyond it. But until we reach that stage of liberation, then we are bound to cyclical existence. And as I understand it, liberation is characterized by universal compassion. It is liberation into a state inconceivably greater than the normal human state, not simply fading into nothingness. But until that state is realized, one is as real as the objects of experience in the phenomenal realm, and in the same way (i.e., not completely!)

Besides, what I don't get about Williams' account, is why he thinks it possible, or likely, that a human being would be 'reborn as an insect'. I would have thought that the orthodox understanding was that one's future state was contingent upon intentional actions in this life. So it would seem likely to me that a human, especially a caring and compassionate human, would not, as a matter of course, be re-born in one of the 'animal' realms (or indeed any of the lower realms, generally). I am inclined to believe that 'as you think, so you become', is pretty well a universal law, whether upwards, downwards, or sideways.

I also don't think he understands the notion that the capacity for liberation that is latent in all beings. It is not as if all beings are totally in darkness until such time in some remote future life when they are suddenly delivered from all of it. Deliverance has to be in some sense in the here-and-now.
Learn to do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind ~ this is the teaching of the Buddhas
User avatar
Wayfarer
 
Posts: 1931
Joined: Sun May 27, 2012 8:31 am
Location: Sydney AU

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby futerko » Wed Jan 30, 2013 6:56 am

To be honest, I'm not sure if it is meant to be an attempt at stand-up comedy or philosophy, but either way it needs some work. In the end it is just an exercise in discursive thought.
Last edited by futerko on Wed Jan 30, 2013 7:07 am, edited 2 times in total.
we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar - Nietzsche
User avatar
futerko
 
Posts: 993
Joined: Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:58 am

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Nighthawk » Wed Jan 30, 2013 6:58 am

Huseng wrote:I think he's grasping onto a personal identity that isn't there. He's afraid he'll lose it, wherein there really is nothing to lose.

Being a buddhist or non buddhist.... still how can one be so sure whether it exists or not?
Nighthawk
 
Posts: 779
Joined: Tue Jan 12, 2010 8:04 am

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Indrajala » Wed Jan 30, 2013 7:07 am

jeeprs wrote:I actually can't accept that view, either. I don't think it provides an answer to the problem of agency.


There is only action by virtue of there being an agent, but that agent is merely the sum of its parts. It is a result of previous past karma, and its future will dictated likewise by karma produced by that agent. If the causes for a future mass of suffering are halted, then there will be no more agent.

In ordinary reality, there is a person. A conventional identity, though ordinary perceptions are delusional.

But until that state is realized, one is as real as the objects of experience in the phenomenal realm, and in the same way (i.e., not completely!)



Part of the process, at least in Mahāyāna thought, is to cease clinging to one's own identity and expanding that self-concern to include others. That means in the absence of self, there is suchness which encompasses all beings in the three realms. However, that is not something most of us could manage in the present lifetime. At the beginning, we might simply see the welfare of others as just as important as our own.



So it would seem likely to me that a human, especially a caring and compassionate human, would not, as a matter of course, be re-born in one of the 'animal' realms (or indeed any of the lower realms, generally). I am inclined to believe that 'as you think, so you become', is pretty well a universal law, whether upwards, downwards, or sideways.


Unfortunately we're normally unaware of the karma we have lingering behind us. It can ripen in the bardo unfortunately causing unexpected rebirths.


I also don't think he understands the notion that the capacity for liberation that is latent in all beings. It is not as if all beings are totally in darkness until such time in some remote future life when they are suddenly delivered from all of it.



Unfortunately most people are bound for the lower realms sooner or later (probably sooner):

Humans for the most part
Are involved in things ignoble.
Therefore, most ordinary beings
Will surely go to the miserable realms.

- Aryadeva in Four Hundred Stanzas


Throughout life if you're largely motivated by greed, self-interest and anger, then inevitably your actions will be unwholesome. You might not kill anyone, but most of what you do and think is unwholesome.

Saṃsāra really is a horrible nightmare once you analyze it. There's only horrific suffering awaiting most people. That might not sound hopeful, but then I'd prefer to be realistic rather than religiously idealistic.
Flower Ornament Depository (Blog)
Indrajāla's Contemplations (Blog)
Exploring Classical Chinese (Blog)
Dharma Depository (Site)

"Hui gives me no assistance. There is nothing that I say in which he does not delight." -Confucius
User avatar
Indrajala
 
Posts: 5959
Joined: Fri Feb 12, 2010 3:19 pm
Location: Japan

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Sherab Dorje » Wed Jan 30, 2013 1:13 pm

Good luck to him on his newly rediscovered path. May it be a cause for him to reduce his suffering and be reborn in conditions conducive to practice as a consequence of any merit he may accumulate!
:namaste:
"When one is not in accord with the true view
Meditation and conduct become delusion,
One will not attain the real result
One will be like a blind man who has no eyes."
Naropa - Summary of the View from The Eight Doha Treasures
User avatar
Sherab Dorje
Global Moderator
 
Posts: 9795
Joined: Fri May 14, 2010 9:27 pm
Location: Greece

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Matt J » Wed Jan 30, 2013 2:27 pm

He said his conversion was always deep down a "sham" and he never really became dedicated.

[url]
http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl ... on-1.49534[/url]
The Great Way is not difficult
If only there is no picking or choosing
--- Xin Xin Ming

http://nondualism.org/
User avatar
Matt J
 
Posts: 198
Joined: Tue Aug 03, 2010 2:29 am

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Indrajala » Wed Jan 30, 2013 2:48 pm

Matt J wrote:He said his conversion was always deep down a "sham" and he never really became dedicated.


I've read that a lot of baby boomers who converted to Asian religions ultimately returned to their birth religion of Christianity.

I can understand why in some ways. A Church full of native English speakers with similar lifestyles, values and cuisine is a lot easier to get along with than immigrants from Asia who speak another language and might not share the same culinary tastes and so on. A Buddhist community that relies primarily on teachers from Asia might not feel as welcoming as a Church run by people you more or less grew up with in the same culture. Christmas dinner at the Church with mashed potatoes and gravy might just feel more cozy than tofu and rice at the Vietnamese Vesak celebration.

I think my generation will be different because most of my peers, whether Canada, America or the UK, seldom went to Church during their childhood (that's statistically true as well as far as I know). As western hegemony fades it is also more acceptable to permanently invest yourself in foreign cultures and religions.
Flower Ornament Depository (Blog)
Indrajāla's Contemplations (Blog)
Exploring Classical Chinese (Blog)
Dharma Depository (Site)

"Hui gives me no assistance. There is nothing that I say in which he does not delight." -Confucius
User avatar
Indrajala
 
Posts: 5959
Joined: Fri Feb 12, 2010 3:19 pm
Location: Japan

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Karma Dondrup Tashi » Wed Jan 30, 2013 5:52 pm

To my understanding there's only been one "conversion" to Catholicism which has been "successful" from the point of view of Dharma. Christian Hermeticism, like all paths East and West, is filled with charlatanism. Valentin Tomberg was not a charlatan. For anyone who is interested:

Image
Karma Dondrup Tashi
 
Posts: 1014
Joined: Mon Oct 19, 2009 7:13 pm

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby futerko » Wed Jan 30, 2013 8:09 pm

Matt J wrote:He said his conversion was always deep down a "sham" and he never really became dedicated.
His reasons for converting back to Catholicism also seem a bit frivolous.
we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar - Nietzsche
User avatar
futerko
 
Posts: 993
Joined: Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:58 am

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Wed Jan 30, 2013 8:14 pm

futerko wrote:
Matt J wrote:He said his conversion was always deep down a "sham" and he never really became dedicated.
His reasons for converting back to Catholicism also seem a bit frivolous.


Yeah, I found them kind of silly and cartoonish to be coming from someone who is a scholar.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
User avatar
Johnny Dangerous
Global Moderator
 
Posts: 2577
Joined: Fri Nov 02, 2012 10:58 pm
Location: Olympia WA

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Wayfarer » Wed Jan 30, 2013 11:42 pm

gregkavarnos wrote:Good luck to him on his newly rediscovered path. May it be a cause for him to reduce his suffering and be reborn in conditions conducive to practice as a consequence of any merit he may accumulate!
:namaste:



Hear, hear. I second that.

Here is a perceptive and sensitive review of his book Unexpected Way from a Buddhist reviewer in Dharma Life.
Learn to do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind ~ this is the teaching of the Buddhas
User avatar
Wayfarer
 
Posts: 1931
Joined: Sun May 27, 2012 8:31 am
Location: Sydney AU

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby wisdom » Thu Jan 31, 2013 10:04 am

I wonder who put the idea in his head that enlightenment was impossible for him in this life. However his whole approach is wrong. If he converted to Buddhism that was the first mistake. Converting back was his second. There is no need to convert to or away from anything. Just seek ultimate truth for its own sake with the intention to liberate yourself and all sentient beings from suffering. No need to identify as this or that or worry about what hat you are wearing.
User avatar
wisdom
 
Posts: 473
Joined: Mon Oct 31, 2011 4:33 am

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Michael_Dorfman » Thu Jan 31, 2013 12:16 pm

Huseng wrote:Saṃsāra really is a horrible nightmare once you analyze it. There's only horrific suffering awaiting most people. That might not sound hopeful, but then I'd prefer to be realistic rather than religiously idealistic.


I think this is the crux of it; you'd prefer to be realistic rather than religiously idealistic, and Williams would rather have the hope that Catholicism offers him.

I'm a huge admirer of Williams as a scholar, and I don't think his description of rebirth here (aimed at a lay Catholic audience unfamiliar with Buddhism) is representative of his most considered thoughts on the subject; rather, I think he's being quite clear about what motivates him-- that he wants something to believe in that brings him comfort. Now, the question as to why he find that in the grace of Jesus and not the vow of Amitabha is another matter, and I assume it is one he deals with in his autobiographical book (which I haven't read, I'm afraid.)

What interests me most is the seeming lack of compassion towards Williams shown by some here. He's clearly suffering, and at least he is open and honest about his clinging to a sense of self. I suppose that seeing someone who has been deeply exposed to the dharma and has been a long-time practitioner decide to turn his back on the path awakens latent seeds of doubt in some people which manifest in the form of disparagement.
Michael_Dorfman
 
Posts: 51
Joined: Tue Mar 20, 2012 2:09 pm

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Indrajala » Thu Jan 31, 2013 2:46 pm

Michael_Dorfman wrote:What interests me most is the seeming lack of compassion towards Williams shown by some here. He's clearly suffering, and at least he is open and honest about his clinging to a sense of self. I suppose that seeing someone who has been deeply exposed to the dharma and has been a long-time practitioner decide to turn his back on the path awakens latent seeds of doubt in some people which manifest in the form of disparagement.


That's a good observation.

Many of the people on this forum are probably ex-Christian, too.
Flower Ornament Depository (Blog)
Indrajāla's Contemplations (Blog)
Exploring Classical Chinese (Blog)
Dharma Depository (Site)

"Hui gives me no assistance. There is nothing that I say in which he does not delight." -Confucius
User avatar
Indrajala
 
Posts: 5959
Joined: Fri Feb 12, 2010 3:19 pm
Location: Japan

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby treehuggingoctopus » Thu Jan 31, 2013 3:25 pm

Michael_Dorfman wrote:I'm a huge admirer of Williams as a scholar, and I don't think his description of rebirth here (aimed at a lay Catholic audience unfamiliar with Buddhism) is representative of his most considered thoughts on the subject; rather, I think he's being quite clear about what motivates him-- that he wants something to believe in that brings him comfort. Now, the question as to why he find that in the grace of Jesus and not the vow of Amitabha is another matter, and I assume it is one he deals with in his autobiographical book (which I haven't read, I'm afraid.)

What interests me most is the seeming lack of compassion towards Williams shown by some here. He's clearly suffering, and at least he is open and honest about his clinging to a sense of self. I suppose that seeing someone who has been deeply exposed to the dharma and has been a long-time practitioner decide to turn his back on the path awakens latent seeds of doubt in some people which manifest in the form of disparagement.


Firstly, I'm not sure if Williams is a reliable source of academic knowledge as far as Buddhism goes. Even I can point out errors and gross oversimplifications in his Mahayana Buddhism (for instance, his presentation of the rangtong vs shentong debate), and I'm hardly a scholar of Buddhism. More importantly, what he is now selling as 'Buddhism' to the world in his interviews is an absurd fantasy.

Secondly, as Futerko and others have noted, what his reconversion smacks of is... profound immaturity. Christian mystics would probably find as many problems with his reasons for going back to RC as the posters here do.

Thirdly, regarding the seeming lack of compassion towards the guy, he has been doing his best to piss on Buddhism ever since he ditched it. I don't feel like going back to it, but I've read some of his interviews which were just scathing - and the kind of comparison between Buddhism and Christianity that emerged from them was one a ten-year old kid could do.

I mean, I get it, Williams is now a fanatical born-again Christian. But he's also supposedly a scholar of Buddhism. The problem is, being the former is simply incompatible with following the latter vocation properly (just as it would be incompatible with getting genuinely involved any serious academic work).
. . . there they saw a rock! But it wasn't a rock . . .
User avatar
treehuggingoctopus
 
Posts: 592
Joined: Sun Jun 05, 2011 6:26 pm
Location: Mudhole? Slimy? My home, this is.

Re: Buddhist Scholar Paul Williams Conversion to Catholicism

Postby Michael_Dorfman » Thu Jan 31, 2013 4:20 pm

treehuggingoctopus wrote:
Firstly, I'm not sure if Williams is a reliable source of academic knowledge as far as Buddhism goes. Even I can point out errors and gross oversimplifications in his Mahayana Buddhism (for instance, his presentation of the rangtong vs shentong debate), and I'm hardly a scholar of Buddhism. More importantly, what he is now selling as 'Buddhism' to the world in his interviews is an absurd fantasy.



His Mahayana Buddhism is an introductory textbook, so of course there will be simplifications; still, I don't know of any other single-volume introduction to Mahayana that competes; I think his Buddhist Thought is also a nice introductory work on Indian Buddhism. He was also the editor of the 8-volume Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies for Routledge, an indispensable collection, but it is his academic books and articles (particularly on Madhyamaka) that I was thinking of, which are profound and provocative.

treehuggingoctopus wrote:
Secondly, as Futerko and others have noted, what his reconversion smacks of is... profound immaturity.


I agree completely; that's why I think compassion is in order. It's clearly based in fear, and a desire to cling to a sense of self. He leaves little doubt about that.

treehuggingoctopus wrote:
Thirdly, regarding the seeming lack of compassion towards the guy, he has been doing his best to piss on Buddhism ever since he ditched it. I don't feel like going back to it, but I've read some of his interviews which were just scathing - and the kind of comparison between Buddhism and Christianity that emerged from them was one a ten-year old kid could do.


I haven't read any interviews besides the one linked here, so I can't comment on them.
Michael_Dorfman
 
Posts: 51
Joined: Tue Mar 20, 2012 2:09 pm

Next

Return to Mahāyāna Buddhism

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 13 guests

>