Rev. Francis V. Tiso

1) As an introduction, can you provide a paragraph or two about your birth place, family background, highlights of education, most important professional positions, your proudest accomplishments or contributions. What do like doing best? Hobbies?

I was born in Mount Vernon, New York, a small, racially integrated city just north of New York City. My entire family is descended from people from southern Italy and we grew up aware of and in communication with our families of origin. We also vaguely knew that the Tiso family was very ancient, part of the Venetian nobility going back to the days of the Holy Roman Empire, a history that I have continued to research over the years. I studied in public schools in Mount Vernon and Eastchester, New York. My first university experience was at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I began seminary studies after college and completed my theological degree at Harvard University in 1978. I then spent two years with my spiritual father, Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, at his hermitage in western Connecticut. I obtained an editorial position at the Seabury Press in New York City in 1980, where I was able to help publish many new books in theology and interreligious dialogue. The editorial staff was young, energetic and talkative, so those were very good years. In that position, I met Msgr. Ettore Di Filippo, an Italian priest assigned to the UN; he became a spiritual guide for me and when he was made a bishop, he was able to ordain me to the priesthood, which took place in 1988 in Italy. After my time at Seabury (1980-83), I won a fellowship to complete the Ph.D. at Columbia University in Buddhist Studies guided by Prof. Alex Wayman (1983-1988). I moved to Italy for ordination, upon which I was assigned as chaplain to the shrine-hermitage of Ss. Cosmas and Damian on a hill just across from the historic center of the town of Isernia. This church is an artistic treasure which was being restored during my first years of service. It also plays into the 19th century debates about "pagan survivals" in rural Europe, influencing the theories of religious origins that various scholars have proposed over the years. During my ministry in Italy, I published a number of articles based on my research on the life of Milarepa. I also traveled to India and Nepal many times and was able to visit Japan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Taiwan for research and interreligious meetings. Bishop Di Filippo and his successor, Bishop Andrea Gemma, encouraged my scholarly work, interreligious activities, and participation in meetings in many countries. I was also in frequent contact with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican. In 1998, during an extensive construction project at Ss. Cosmas and Damian, I received permission to return to the United States to serve in various parishes in California for a few years. I was advised to apply for the position of Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC in 2004 because of my work in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. To my surprise, I was chosen for this position which I filled for a five year term. Among the many satisfying experiences of dialogue and teaching in that period, I would mention the documents Revelation: Catholic and Muslim Perspectives and Marriage: Catholic and Sunni Muslim Perspectives, both very carefully edited by scholars of both traditions. In addition, in the field of ecumenism, I helped draft a legally binding agreement on the mutual recognition of Baptism by Catholic and Reformed Christian confessions (denominations); the document has been approved by the leadership of a number of denominations including the full body of the Catholic Bishops of the US. Our programs also included training programs for Bishops and diocesan directors of dialogue programs, and a wide range of meetings with Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Jain and other leaders residing in the US and abroad.

I like gardening, playing the trumpet and painting in watercolors and acrylics when I am not doing scholarly or pastoral work.

2) While you are a Catholic priest, you went on to earn a rather esoteric degree in Tibetan Buddhist studies? What motivated you to do so? Why Milarepa?

I did my theological studies preparing for the priesthood largely outside the structures of a normal Catholic seminary education. At Cornell, I moved from an initial attraction to biochemisty into an intense program in the humanities, mainly medieval, renaissance and early modern European studies, which has proven useful to me to the present day. After two years of formal seminary, I made a choice to complete my theological and pastoral studies at Harvard in an ecumenical milieu in which I was welcomed as a Catholic. After my Master of Divinity degree, I sought to integrate my studies with the practices of the spiritual life at the Benedictine Grange, a tiny monastic experiment in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. There I was able to share the biblical and theological learning gained at Harvard with well-educated American adults and with students in a local college. My subsequent activities in publishing are mentioned above. One of the achievements of those years in New York was the book: Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype by Raimondo Panikkar, a leading Catholic theologian deeply committed to interreligious dialogue; I have recently published a retrospective article on this book and its place in Panikkar's intellectual evolution. The priest who later became my bishop, Msgr. Ettore Di Filippo, worked for the Vatican at the United Nations while completing a doctorate in History of Religions at Fordham University. We discovered that we had a great deal in common as scholars and as men of faith. In the early 1980s we began working together on projects of assistance for the elderly in various parts of the world, funded through the UN.

My other spiritual father, Br. David, has pursued interreligious work primarily with the Zen communities in the US. I felt that it was time for an opening towards a dialogue with the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist communities as well. In fact, I had already been reading about other forms of Buddhism as early as 1970. I had, for example, discovered the translations by Evans-Wentz thanks to friends at Cornell. I was fascinated by the Milarepa "conversion story": from dispossessed child to sorcerer to yogi, saint and culture hero. In the course of my doctoral studies, I sought out older versions of the Milarepa biography in Tibetan and, influenced by biblical studies at Harvard, I proceeded to elaborate a dissertation in the style of "redaction criticism", showing the evolution of the Milarepa biography over four centuries of Tibetan history.

 3) Do you consider yourself a Catholic Buddhist, a Buddhist Catholic? How do you identify yourself and your relationship to the Buddhist spiritual path? Have you had any conflict with the Church in this regard? (Readers may be familiar with Zen Catholicism- I know a French Jesuit who teaches Zen meditation in Korea).

Milarepa sang to a group of women disciples: "I am Mila who eats nettles; I have become green like nettles; You can say I am of the nettle clan! And Mila and nettles cannot be told apart!"

I have been blessed by being in the presence of many spiritual teachers over the course of what has already been a fairly long lifetime. Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, Eastern Christians, Zen teachers, Vajrayana and Bonpo teachers, yogis and bhakti masters in India, Theravada and Ch'an teachers, Sufi masters, and even folks in the "new religions". And like Milarepa, I have sat in the presence of holy places, mountains, glaciers, trees, cascades, springs, caves, bee hives, gardens and hermitages. So "Tiso and these teachers cannot be told apart". With some teachers, I have had a strong sense of connection because with them I had little glimpses of inner awakening, and with other teachers because they noticed something interesting in my body-mind continuum. So I have incorporated their practices to some extent into my personal spectrum of spiritual practices and way of seeing the world.

At least five Catholic spiritual directors have confirmed my calling to engage Buddhism through shared spiritual practice. Pope John Paul II personally commissioned me in 1992 to engage in Buddhist-Catholic dialogue during an audience at the Vatican. In order to be faithful to this very demanding calling, I do not do "hybridization"! I am an ordinary Italo-American Catholic who became a priest in Italy, responding to a calling that was felt from age 8, who continues to struggle with his defects and faults, and who has far too little time at the moment to carry out the mission that the late Holy Father entrusted to me. I am living in a paradox, in a time of scarsity and crisis. There is no formal conflict between my calling and the Church's current direction. A practical conflict arises because of a lack of support for the interreligious task at a time in which the Church has a shortage of clergy to run parishes and institutions. At the same time, I have never failed to find people interested in interreligious dialogue, particularly with Buddhism and Islam, and there are in many places gatherings in which sane and balanced vision of the future of the human spiritual quest is nurtured.

4) Tell us about your fascinating "rainbow body research"? What was your reason for embarking on this? Where are you going with it? (Bibliographic info is welcome). Please mention manifestations of the rainbow body in diverse religious traditions. Try to bring in concepts of Heaven, Purgatory, Hell(s), nirvana, union with God, Absolute, whatever you want.

I undertook the research on the rainbow body because Br. David Steindl-Rast, my spiritual father, had heard about the phenomenon in relation to a Tibetan monk named Khenpo A-chos who had passed away in 1998. With Br. David's help, we were able to obtain funding and directions to the location in eastern Tibet where the monk had lived and died. Br. David intuited that a more profound understanding of the resurrection of Jesus might emerge from such research, and he entrusted the task to me because of my ability to travel in the Tibetan milieu, based on my previous research in Dolpo, a Tibetan cultural region in northern Nepal. Basically, I concluded that the details of the resurrection of Jesus and the details of the rainbow body are significantly different. The rainbow body arises from a lengthy training in the Dzogchen lineages of Bon and Vajrayana Buddhism; it is a manifestation of an habitual, spontaneous, and sustained way of being; it is a way of looking with one's whole being into the true nature of reality. Like the results of other focused types of spiritual practice, it is a kind of spiritual fruition or realization. The resurrection has some of the same characteristics, because it too means living fully in the boundless realm of being; however, it is relational and theistic in principle. The resurrection of Jesus is a way by which believers participate in his very life; by such participation, they will one day manifest the resurrection themselves, at the end of this universe. Also, the resurrection seems resistant to violent circumstances, whereas the attainers of the rainbow body are generally sensitive to undesirable circumstances surrounding the time of death and the post-mortem period (but here again, there are exceptions). My research forced me to rethink many principles of the so-called scientific method and suggested that humanity needs to consider creating communities of research and spiritual practice that will help clarify the transformative power of meditation in all the great traditions. I am convinced that humanity is at risk because of our almost global enthrallment to entertainment, money, technology, and self-centeredness. We see young people who literally pretend that there are no other persons around them as they go through the day! They are hypnotized by the virtual world of pseudo-communication which they seek to construct in a form that they can "handle" but which is really "handling" them, limiting their horizons and truncating their skills. In order to stave off the emergence of a new "dark age", people need to rediscover the intense relationships that arise in communities dedicated to what was once called "the philosophical way of life", where imagination, ideas and spiritual disciplines are the primary tools of discovery. In such communities, it would be considered quite alien to be obsessed with money or power or self-aggrandizement. In such environments, however small, isolated or humble, the rainbow body and the resurrection can be attained. I can provide some bibliography by email to those who would like to pursue this. As for the various dimensions of life after death, the main idea is that it is a sheer encounter with divine love in which knowledge and love are one reality, which we call "union with God" or transformative mystical union. To the degree that one has consciously lived in accord with divine love, after death the person will already be oriented towards the eternal vitality and boundlessness of that love; to the degree that one has evaded or been inconsistent in the pursuit of that divine love, to that extent will one need to be purified in a purgatorial state. It is possible, given the high character of human freedom, that one's habitual choice of evil may cause one after death to be obliged to remain in a "hell" in which the fire of love is experienced as the pain of one's own turning away from all that is good, loving and true.

5) What do you think Buddhists can learn from Catholicism and Catholics from Buddhism?

On a simple, direct level, walking along in the marketplace where humanity walks in daily worry and distraction, I have always hoped to be able to let people who do not know or understand God, Jesus and the Catholic Church to gain some positive experience of these realities that have meant so much to me personally. Whether or not other people become Catholics, they do have the right to know about this religion, and all religions, as they are known by those who find the meaning of their lives there. It is a question of fairness and even of justice because I think we are all aware that Catholicism (among other religions) is very often presented in a negative light, even in supposedly objective textbooks and courses in religious studies! People have a right to know, and believers have the right to expect teachers, writers and journalists to interpret religions in ways that are at least recognizable to those who practice them.

In my many conversations with yogis in India, lamas in Tibet and Dolpo (Nepal), Zen masters in the US and in Japan, Muslim teachers in Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey and the US, there is a real consensus that education about religion is not well done in the contemporary world, and that communities of faith need to be more clearly heard in the production of educational materials and methods of study.

Catholics can learn much from Buddhists of various traditions. Sometimes we find evidence that refreshes insights that are already part of the Catholic tradition, such as contemplative prayer, meditation, the monastic life. Sometimes we find ourselves surprised with unexpected areas of common spiritual concern and practice such as: the emphasis on faith in the veneration of Amitabha which has been compared with faith in Christianity by many observers; mantric prayer (compared to the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Christianity); prayer for the dead (for Buddhists, at the full moon of late summer; for Catholics in the month of November); sacred liturgical meals (the Vajrayana ganacakra; the Catholic Eucharist); use of sacred music in worship; spiritual guidance through clergy and hierarchy; complex historical relationships between religious authorities and the public order/state structure; organized works of mercy; missionary activities and the propagation of one's religion among others; aesthetics as a way of manifesting the sacred vision including ceremony, fine arts, decorative arts, architecture, etc.; expectations of an "end time"(Second Coming of Christ; Advent of Maitreya); spiritual preparation for death; pastoral care oriented towards families, and so forth.

Catholics may find among their Buddhist contemporaries teachers and practitioners of aspects of spirituality that have not been fully developed in Christian tradition such as: forms of natural/alternative healing; the value of asceticism and long retreats for non-monastics; full development of the master-disciple relationship; techniques of mental discipline and hygiene; ability to work with the subtle energies of the body-mind complex such as kundalini, cakras, subtle body channels, "the five winds", and more subtle aspects of consciousness; techniques for maintaining psychological equilibrium while elucidating subtle but powerful energies; a more "contemplative" and experiential vision of the psychosomatic wholeness of the human person. Time after time, I encounter Catholics who would like to know about these matters, but have been disappointed by the responses given them by clergy and others in our tradition. It seems that we have been good at preaching and describing spiritual transformation, but weak on developing methods for bringing about transformation; we offer a wide variety of the "means for obtaining grace" but we fail to provide detailed instructions on what to do with the grace(s) received. The encounter with Buddhism challenges us to deepen and intensify the spiritual life in practice.

I also hope to see Buddhists surprised and even shaken up by discovering the ways in which we Catholics interpret scriptures and other religions; by the intensity of the historical science-religion debate; by the historical relationship between Church and university, Church and Western culture, Church and humanistic values, and by the rich liturgical culture of Western and Eastern Christianity. Buddhists East and West have on the whole been slow to enter these areas of study, to the detriment of interreligious dialogue. Some, though not all, Western converts to Buddhism leave the matrix of Western religions to embrace Buddhism while still weighed down by misunderstandings and distortions that derive as much from misinformation as from personal disappointments with institutional Western religions. For example, there is a constant complaint that English (and other European languages) is not capable of translating the subtle meanings present in Tibetan, Pali or Sanskrit religious literature. In part, this is a result of a lack of training in the literary, religious and humanistic traditions of the West on the part of the translators. Scholars such as Glenn Mullin and Ronald Davidson are showing the way out of this impasse. However, intelligible translations of Buddhist texts into European languages are still a rarity. Moreover, there is unfortunately, still in circulation a body of ill-conceived polemical literature from the distant and recent past of both religions, whose infelicitous consequences we hope to remedy through study and dialogue .

6) Talk about your interfaith work in Washington with Catholic Bishops Conference. Issues with Muslims are complex. What can Catholics and Buddhists do for enduring peace?

The main problem with the Muslim dialogue comes from the academic study of Islam, and not from the living Muslim communities where many earnest believers know very well the value of dialogue. Leaving aside for a moment the misguided journalistic misrepresentations of Islam, we currently have an academic approach to Islam that emphasizes historical periods in which Islamic civilizations were prosperous, tolerant, and enlightened. Unfortunately, these civilizations have not prevailed for many centuries in the Muslim world, with some notable exceptions in Persia, India and perhaps in Turkey from time to time. It is as if we only taught about the Catholicism of the thirteenth century, ignoring other periods of flourishing Catholicism (for example, the Baroque) or of decline. To make matters worse, the best of Islam is often presented in contrast with the worst in Christianity, as if to promote, strangely, the anti-religious agenda of some forms of modernism. There is always an agenda, and most of these agendas have unforeseen negative consequences. For many Christians and Muslims, distorted images in the mass media and in the classroom are causes of concern and deep resentment. It is also true that some enthusiastic converts from one religion to another have made a cottage industry out of the production of highly inflammatory polemical literature. Such publications are symptomatic of the present moment in which a great deal of information is available on the Web, but not much skill in critical thinking is being absorbed by people on the interface of our changing global culture.

My task at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was to take into consideration these concerns, while at the same time maintaining the mandate to continue three high level Catholic-Muslim dialogues in different parts of the US. Along with these annual dialogues, USCCB sponsored a Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue (Ch'an/Zen Buddhism) on the West Coast and a mixed Hindu-Christian dialogue in the Washington, DC area. During my five year term, I set in motion a Catholic-Sikh dialogue and pursued several dialogues with Hindu associations mainly on the East Coast. I was also the staff representative at Religions for Peace USA and at the Catholic-Reformed Dialogue on Baptism and Eucharist. Our Secretariat carried out a variety of educational programs across the country, such as the Institute for Bishops on Islam; training of diocesan ecumenical and interreligious representatives; interreligious formation programs for Catholic teachers and clergy; and special international high-level dialogues mainly in the world of NGOs in the DC area ("inside the Beltway"). I found this work deeply satisfying, the fulfillment of a lifetime of study, travel and experience, and frankly I would have been grateful to continue this work indefinitely.

I have some observations about Buddhist-Catholic dialogue that I hope will be helpful, even if I have to be a little bit critical. We found that, with some notable and, unfortunately, inimitable exceptions, that ethnically based, immigrant Buddhist communities in the US were unresponsive to our efforts to widen the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Buddhists in the US. In some cases, the smaller Buddhist communities preferred a collaborative dialogue on the local level with particular dioceses, interfaith associations or academic institutions, and did not see any value in a national level of dialogue, which is understandable from a practical point of view. It was interesting that the efforts of Western convert Buddhists to include "native born" Buddhists in dialogue programs also failed to produce results. As yet, only a handful of outstanding individual pioneers from the Korean, Burmese, Thai and Japanese communities have shown a willingness to engage in formal institutional dialogue. I would like to commend the leadership of the Jodoshinshu community on the West Coast, which has been particularly faithful to local interfaith dialogue, and Rev. Dr. Jongmae Park for his strong personal commitment to dialogue and serious scholarship.

On the other hand, a significant portion of leadership among the convert Western Buddhist community has been very open to dialogue and has made crucial contributions not only to Buddhist-Christian dialogue, but to the theory, methods and practice of dialogue generally. The famous Cobb-Abe academic debates, the engagement of Br. David Steindl-Rast with the Zen communities especially on the West Coast (but also in New York), the Naropa interreligious summer programs of the 1980s, and the Gethsemane encounters of the past 20 years have demonstrated the vitality of this high level dialogue. The fact that participants share a common language, cultural background and level of philosophical sophistication has made this kind of dialogue as fruitful as that between Christians and Jews, and for many of the same reasons.

We still need a Buddhist-Christian "pastoral dialogue" in order to arrive at good working relationships and to overcome past and present misunderstandings. Often the problem emerges in the form of dehumanizing styles of proselytism, from which certain sectarian movements both Christian and Buddhist in inspiration are not immune. While at the USCCB, I proposed a common statement on proselytism and mutual respect to the leadership of Jodoshinshu Buddhism and to the Interfaith Commission of the National Council of Churches. I am still convinced that such an agreement, supported by an ongoing dialogue of pastoral care on the local level, will greatly improve Christian-Buddhist relations, especially in the "immigrant" or "native born" communities. I also believe that the World Conference on Religions for Peace, which I understand is very active in Korea, could be a forum for the international implementation of such an approach. By taking the courageous step of eliminating tension-producing issues connected to proselytism, it might subsequently be possible to construct collaborative efforts in social service, advocacy, and durable structures supportive of peace-making.

The main idea here is to envision global humanity being oriented toward a dynamic process of peace-making supported by religious practices in ways that do not threaten a community's religious identity. Religious education within our communities will consistently make it clear that being violent or behaving in a manner that dehumanizes other people is alien to authentic religious practice. Like bad thoughts which the sword of Manjushri resolutely prunes from the tree of the mind, so too violence in thought, word and deed are to be cut off by the sword of compassion.

7) What is a Catholic Buddhist scholar doing in a village in Italy? Whereto from there? Do you teach meditation in your parish?

Since September of 2009, I have been trying to bring peace and reconciliation to a deeply troubled faith community in the hills of south-central Italy. In practice, most families are secularized in the sense that they do not regularly attend church events or training programs, but only look to the church for life-cycle celebrations such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals. There is very little interest in socially engaged Catholicism, religious education, works of charity and justice, study of the Bible, and other features typical of contemporary Catholic life. The town has a history of poor hygiene (smoking, alcoholism), unemployment, illiteracy, youth delinquency and political divisiveness. However, thanks to a core group of collaborators who are aware of the problems, there has definitely been a changing of the guard and a turning of the tide. The challenges, which are also administrative and economic, are being met with great determination by those who know that they and their children will benefit from an authentic Catholic parish life.

I teach meditation weekly in private at my home, which is 16 km away from the parish. I also teach traditional forms of Christian prayer and contemplation monthly in the parish. People are welcome to use my extensive interreligious library over more than 5000 volumes, one of the largest private libraries in the region.

Next year, I expect to be teaching two or three courses in the Interreligious Studies Program at the Gregorian University in Rome.

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