The department of theology at Bristol University is housed in one of a row of gracious buildings that used to be the homes of nineteenth-century merchants in this city in western England. Professor Paul Williams’s room, where he teaches Buddhist studies, is lined with books, scented with joss sticks, and comfortably untidy with religious objects. A new poster of Pope Benedict dominates the notice board. A picture of Mother Teresa stands nearby. On the other side of the room, a small, fat, brass Buddha squats on a bookshelf. Needing something on which to rest my notebook, I am offered a hardback Living Buddhism.
Paul Williams was a leading member of the local Buddhist community for twenty years. He helped build a Buddhist center for study and meditation and raised funds for Buddhist projects. Then, five years ago, he became a Catholic. He still teaches Buddhism and is a leading member of the academic community, sharing knowledge of Sanskrit and other languages. But he is now a practicing Catholic. He has found the truth and intends to live by it.
Williams book The Unexpected Way (Continuum, 2000), which tells of his conversion, has attracted widespread attention in Britain and has been translated into German and Polish. He has been invited to address meetings of Catholic groups and write in Catholic publications. But not everyone likes his message. As I settle down to hear his story, I learn that he just returned from a conference at a Catholic monastery in Germany, where speakers denounced the book for saying that it is impossible to be both a Buddhist and a Christian.
“It was terrible,” he said. “These wishy-washy attempts to dialogue—pretending that two things are compatible when they aren’t—worry me. If people say you can be both Christian and Buddhist, they are not making real choices and taking responsibility for them. They are fudging.”
But he insists that we start at the beginning. A conversion story deserves its own proper space.
As a child, Williams was an Anglican choirboy, although the family did not go to church regularly. “I loved the music. In due course I became head chorister at church, but it was just as my voice broke, so while officially leading the choir in ruff and surplice, I was actually just mouthing the words.”
He drifted away from church attendance in his teens. “Quite honestly, it was simply that other things intervened: new interests, new chapters of my life opening up.” He did retain an interest in religion, though, and read about it voraciously.
“Then I got involved in all that stuff of the 1960s—wore a caftan, burned incense. As you see, I still like the smell of it.” He went to school in Canterbury. He remembers going into the (Anglican) cathedral there to try out meditation and being gently ushered away. He went on to Sussex University, planning to do a conventional degree in philosophy. But within his first week he opted instead to tackle philosophy and religion at the university’s School of African and Asian Studies. He graduated with honors and went on to do a doctorate, going to Oxford for the necessary study of Sanskrit. By this time he had married. His face lights up as he tells this, as home and family are central to his life.
“We met and married as undergraduates. The wedding—in a traditional Welsh Baptist chapel, as my wife is Welsh—was the day before my twenty-first birthday. We’ve been very happily married ever since.”
After finishing the doctorate, he became a junior research fellow at Wadham College, Oxford. He later lectured at Edinburgh University before coming here to Bristol.
“For quite a while, I wouldn’t have been too specific about my religious beliefs,” he said. “My standard answer if people asked was ‘Well, I think I’m probably a Buddhist.’ But eventually I formally joined, or ‘took refuge’ as it is called. There was a ceremony with a Buddhist monk present. I undertook to seek knowledge and became fully committed to the Buddhist lifestyle.”
Over the years, that lifestyle included spending time at a monastery of Tibetan monks in India, helping to establish a center in Bristol, giving lectures there, running classes for children, and introducing people to meditation.
His wife took no interest in the whole subject, nor did his two sons. But his youngest child, a daughter, was brought up a Buddhist and attended the weekend classes that he gave. “We also brought her up to be vegetarian. Today as an adult she is a good cook and likes to prepare meat dishes for her friends but cannot eat them without becoming ill—for which she blames us.”
The family also sponsored a Tibetan refugee child by having a “bread and margarine” supper once a week and sending the money saved to help with the cost of the child’s education. “Later on, I was even able to go out to India to meet her, and we all stayed in touch for some years.”
The whole essence of Buddhism, he emphasizes, is atheistic. “It really is important to understand this, and a lot of Catholics can’t or won’t.” he said “Buddhism really does teach that there is no God. It is central to its whole way of looking at things.” A vegetarian life was part of a general attitude that forbade any killing—”Some Western Buddhists traveling to India even get worried about whether or not they can kill mosquitoes”—and this extended to a rejection of abortion, one of the beliefs he was to retain with strength as a Catholic.
Meanwhile, he continued his academic career, teaching about classical Tibetan Buddhism—the religion of the Dalai Lama. He enjoyed listening to Catholic lecturers who also taught in his department, among them Fr. Herbert McCabe. “I knew him to have a good mind, and the conversations were fascinating. So I always recognized that there was a case to be made for Catholicism, that it wasn’t something stupid.”
What led him away from Buddhism was thinking in depth about reincarnation. “I wanted to think through the question of what happened to you—to you as a person —in reincarnation. It’s clear that you don’t actually reappear as an insect on another continent or as the family cat. Something is reincarnated, but it isn’t you as a unique individual. You, as such, end. There’s nothing. The more I thought about this, the more it seemed terrible, so annihilating. You just cease to exist. There isn’t anything.
“This isn’t just an academic point. What about those we love? I was close to my family: I loved them and knew them. We mattered to each other. With death, did this just stop?”
Thinking about this brought him to a point when he could not accept the Buddhist idea of reincarnation any more. But his thinking and reading had opened up the possibility of Catholicism.
“But the big question was the existence of God. The whole idea of there being no God had been central to my life, my beliefs. To look with honesty and in depth at the idea that there could be a God and that we could know him, we could meet him—it was something large and challenging.
“I certainly was influenced by the recognition that great thinkers and philosophers had come to recognize and believe in God. And I really did want to get to the bottom of the question about what happened after death. As I read and thought about it, I became convinced that we couldn’t simply cease to exist. That didn’t make sense. The recognition that we have an eternal destiny was a breakthrough. I came to understand the idea of being with God for all eternity. Of course, that isn’t necessarily a comfortable thought, because it involves fully recognizing the existence of hell as well as heaven, but it is central to an understanding of the great value and significance of every human person. And that understanding brings great joy, a great recognition of the immense purpose and value of life itself.”
It was a few steps from there to looking at Christianity. He recognized that if Christianity is true, its fullness is found in the Catholic Church.
“A lot of Catholics don’t understand this, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to know what to do next. I mean, how do you set about becoming a Catholic? I honestly had no idea. I suppose the answer is that one goes and finds a Catholic priest. But that isn’t so simple when you don’t know anything about the Catholic Church.”
He took to visiting Catholic churches occasionally, even praying in them. He remembers praying before a statue of Mary and asking her help. At one point he met a priest and got into conversation with him, which he found helpful. But it was more than a year later that he made formal contact and was invited to join the parish RCIA group.
“I enjoyed the course when it finally started, but there was a delay and during that time I had to do some thinking and asking on my own. I wrote to my Buddhist teacher and formally explained that I was abandoning Buddhism. I also resigned from the local Buddhist community and the center we had established, in which I had played a very active part.”
He had been baptized as a child, but he still had to go to confession—”a prospect that frankly scared me, but it turned out not to be as horrible as I had thought.”
His reception into the Church was a time of great joy, which has continued. “People keep telling me that it won’t last, that there’s a ‘honeymoon’ period. But it’s been several years now and I am still very, very happy. I can say truthfully, with John Henry Newman, that I have never looked back with any regret. There has never been one moment’s doubt.”
Teaching Buddhism and ancient languages remains his academic job, and he is clearly good at it. The department thrives and students do well. “Often I am asked if my conversion has changed things. I would say that I now teach differently. The facts about Buddhism don’t change, of course, so teaching them remains the core of it all. But if I am asked about my faith, I explain that I am a Catholic.”
He likes to mention the thinkers and writers who helped him into the Church, such as Thomas Aquinas and G. K. Chesterton, and emphasize the joy that Christianity brings. “It is one of the things you notice: There is this hope, and it is centered in truth, so life has a real meaning.”
He also emphasizes that as he learned about the Church’s teachings he understood the need to accept the fullness of the truth. “I had to recognize that it all belongs together. I believe in the literal Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as well as papal infallibility, opposition to contraception, and the whole lot.
“There is also the question of beauty. The Church has an understanding of the human recognition of beauty as a way of finding out about God. It’s something we need to understand better, and that might be the next area I start to explore, because it’s something that perhaps has been neglected.” It wasn’t the beauty of the liturgy that drew him to the faith, though. “I didn’t become a Catholic because I needed all sorts of funny experiences. I’d had plenty of those. It was a question of seeking truth.”
His biggest headache is Catholics who claim to know about Buddhism and say it is compatible with their own faith. “It isn’t. And when you get talking to them, they are usually very ignorant, not only about Buddhism but also about Catholicism. That’s worrying. I think it’s a challenge, and it’s telling us something.”