Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Hosts Christian and Buddhist Conference At Gethsemani

The following article is from the Summer, 1996 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by Jeff Cox, Snow Lion Publications

My dear brothers, we are already one, but we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.Thomas Merlon

A remarkable meeting between Christian and Buddhist monastics was held July 22 to 27 at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentuckythe monastery made famous by the late Thomas Merton. His Holiness the Dalai Lama participated in this historic gathering which brought together leading scholar/mystics from many traditions of Buddhism and Christianity.

His Holiness said that this meeting helped fulfill the vision of Thomas Merton who wanted to promote closer inter-religious understanding through meetings that were not primarily intellectual in nature but rather a sincere heartfelt sharing with people from other traditions. Merton died during one such gathering in Bangkok in 1968.

The Christian-Buddhist dialogue began after Vatican II when Pope John XXIII proclaimed for the first time in the history of the Church that truth is to be found in other religions. After this, Christian monks and nuns were invited to develop mutual comprehei sion between Christians and people of other faiths. Since then there have been many exchanges of monastics traveling to and from Asiamostly involving Tibetansleading up to this gathering at Gethsemani.

During the press conference at the beginning of the first day of official activities, the Dalai Lama expressed a wish that there be four types of meetings among the followers of different religions: (1) seminars and dialogues among scholars to discuss the similarities and dissimilarities of their philosophies; (2) meetings of practitioners (monastics and others) to share information about spiritual life and practices; (3) pilgrimages to the sacred sites of each other's traditions to meditate and pray; (4) meetings of the leaders of different traditions.

His Holiness reiterated that the differences between religions are very good, for each religion serves the unique needs of agroup of people, but at the same time it is important that the people of different faiths recognize their common ground and from this place mutually serve humanitythe world is growing smaller and smaller, and humanity has become one big familywe are heavily dependent on one another. He also expressed how impressed he was with all of the work that Christians have done in the fields of education and health and he is urging Buddhist monastics to follow suit by spending half of their time in work that directly benefits humanity.

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After the news conference, the Christians and Buddhists gathered outside to plant a spruce tree together to memorialize the meeting. Abbot Timothy Kelly and His Holiness shoveled dirt and watered the tree together.

The day's activities began before dawn and ended around sunset. Meditations and Christian and Buddhist services offered people the opportunity to share in each other's rituals. There were three meeting periods each day with excellent presentations followed by responses (that were often ended by a bell used to keep the exchanges short, to the point, and to allow many voices to be heard). Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB, well-known author, was the facilitator for the meeting which brought together an impressive group of spiritual leaders. To name a few of the participants who were presenters and their topics:

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-Meditation Practices in Zen Buddhism by Zoketsu Norman Fisher, Sensei

-Stages of Prayer and Contemplation in the Christian Spiritual Life by Pierre De Bethune-, OSB

-Phenomena Associated with the Stages in Spiritual Growth by GilChrist Lavigne, OCSO

-The Stages of Meditation in the Theravada Path of Purity by Ven. Dr. Pandith M. Vajiragnana

-The Relation of Zen Awakening to Social Transformation by Ven. Samu Sunim

-The Role of the Spiritual Father or Mother, the Spiritual Director and Spiritual Discernment in the Contemplative Life by Mary Donald Corcoran, OSB Cam.

-The Arahant Ideal and its Relation to Socially Engaged Buddhism by Ven. Ghosananda

-The Christian Ideal of Holiness in the Contemplative Life by Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB

-The Stages of Spiritual Growth in the Zen Life by Ven. Eshin Nishimura

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke on The Tibetan Buddhist Approaches to Meditation, The Role of Spiritual Teacher and the Place of the Sangha in Tibetan Buddhist Meditation, and The Bodhisattva as an Ideal for both Personal-Contemplative and Collective-Social Transformation.

The proceedings of the conference will be published by Continuum Publishing Group in New York City.

His Holiness, when asked about the possibility of full ordination for Buddhist nuns, said that he would like to bring together representative leaders from all the Buddhist traditions and hold a Fourth Council since the time of the Buddha to discuss and come to a consensus that would carry the authority of the entire tradition. There seemed to be an agreement among those present that this would indeed be the satisfactory approach to solving the Bikshuni issue.

To give an example of the quality of the presentations, here is an excerpt from a talk by Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB and Executive Director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. Her topic was Lectio Divina which is listening to Scripture with the ear of your heart, with the spiritual senses that can grasp the interior meaning of words. The engagement deepens into contemplation in a manner very similar to the process in Buddhism of hearing the texts, then meditating on their meaning leading to contemplative absorption.

Lectio Divina is listening to the text with one's body, and soul. This listening is with the ear of the heart. It is already a prayer of desire, a yearning that becomes thirst. This kind of reading has to be taught, since in our times we read for information.

Lectio Divina is closer to ritual than intellectual activity. When done wholeheartedly, Lectio is followed by discursive meditation. This conceptual activity takes several forms: to memorize the text and recite it during manual work, to ruminate about the text, to study in dialogue with the text using commentaries and study guides, footnotes or cross references, to linger on a text setting it to music or another art form.

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Our work is our prayer and prayer is our work.

Meditation is about' the text and moves organically toward the subject of the text. A relationship with God emerges. Meditation can move the monastic deeper into consciousness in two progressions.

The first type of meditation is prayer on the conscious level. The practitioner shifts from reading, i.e.,

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