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.
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.