Buddhist - Catholic Dialogue

About 75 Buddhists and Catholics met last October 9-12 to dialogue on the theme of "From Suffering to Liberation". Some of the sessions took place at the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison, NY, and some at the Buddhist Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, NY, about twenty minutes away. The event was planned and sponsored by the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers and the Buddhist Association of the United States. (See box adjoining this article for the history of Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue).

In her opening remarks, Buddhist representative Peggy Chang noted that Pope Paul VI set the precedent by opening formal dialogue almost forty years ago. "As our societies have become more globalized and interconnected," she said, "the international effort to bridge and understand religions, despite cultural and dogmatic differences, increases in importance. We cradle the world by our virtues and values. When the religious leaders and communities acknowledge the similarities shared among them, they inspire others to do the same. Our differences separate us, but our humanity shines through.

Ms. Chang noted that historically, Catholic and Buddhist relations were approached in two ways. One looked at their differences, the other look at their similarities. Now, however, a new approach is developing. It steps away from the contrast and comparison analysis, and focuses on application-how people of different faiths can effectively initiate, nurture, and advocate social change by harmonizing shared principles expressed in values, virtues and practices.
The well-known Buddhist monastic Thich Nhat Hanh describes this approach as "engaged spirituality". Both Hanh and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the early pioneers in East-West dialogue, have written on the need to integrate contemplation and action-contemplation as the engagement to deepen understanding and insight within ourselves, and action as the employment of our virtues and values for the benefit of others. Merton found that both faith traditions manifested a constructive, creative, reverence for life, from which springs the desire to better the lives of those around us.

"Regardless of whether we are Buddhists or Catholics,' said Ms. Chang, we possess inherently the will and heart to help others around us. Through dialogue, we remind ourselves of our own humanity, and this transcends any difference among us. Our greatest potential rests in our capacity to make meaningful change. This potential is not restricted to any one religious community. Instead, it is found in all. When we continue to understand each other from this common ground, we learn to respect and value each community for who they are and what they believe. We are all human in the eyes of our religions, and thus deserve equal reverence and respect.
"The evolution of humankind manifests itself not only in physical form," she reflected, "but also in spiritual understanding. When our religious communities engage in interfaith dialogue, we take a step forth, together, towards higher understanding and appreciation of one another. When we hold others in equal esteem, from this common grounding we can act together to resolve the most pressing social afflictions today."

This was precisely the note Paul VI had struck in 1973 in addressing the Laotian Supreme Buddhist Patriarch: "The Catholic Church considers Buddhism's spiritual riches with esteem and respect and wishes to collaborate with you to bring about real peace and the salvation of humankind. Both require an attitude of detachment, inner freedom, truth, justice and benevolence." The pope went on to say that "our intention in Laos is none other than to love and serve while sharing the suffering and hopes of others."

In 1987, during his visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II sounded a similar theme: "To the Buddhist community, which reflects numerous Asian traditions as well as American, I wish respectfully to acknowledge your way of life, based upon compassion and loving kindness and upon a yearning for peace, prosperity and harmony for all beings. May all of us give witness to compassion and loving kindness in promoting the true good of humanity."

In interreligious encounters such as the one last October, the most poignant moments often occur outside of the formal sessions, in direct, personal conversations. One evening after supper, I was taking a walk with Venerable Ji-Xing, a senior monk at Chuang Yen monastery. "If we were riding together in an airplane, and the airplane crashed," he asked, "do you think you would go to heaven because you are a Christian and I would go to hell because I am a Buddhist?"

"No," I said, thinking of Matthew 25 where the Son of Man comes in his glory and separates people from one another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats, "I think God would look at our lives to see whether we had visited the sick, fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and clothed the naked."

"Just so!" he responded, "So let us join together in serving the well-being of others-you Christians because you see the image of God in each one, and we Buddhists because we recognize the Buddha nature in each one."

The spirituality of dialogue asserts that dialogue is not just about words and talk, but ultimately about transformation. Through the process of encounter, each one is changed in some way. Sometimes it comes at the most unexpected moments and in surprising ways. A story to this effect circulates from the 1997 Buddhist-Catholic Gethsemani encounter. The Dalai Lama, in passing to the dialogue room through the vestibule of the monastery chapel, always stopped to bow before the Blessed Sacrament. When it came time for him to leave at the end of the five-day encounter, he passed through the chapel a final time and again bowed toward the tabernacle, and then headed up the aisle towards the exit door. As he reached the door, he turned one last time to the Blessed Sacrament and waved good-bye.

Now there was a monk sitting in one of the choir stalls who witnessed all this and who said afterwards, that after years of struggling to believe in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, the Dalai Lama's simple, spontaneous gesture had restored his faith.

It is the consistent witness of those who participate in such dialogues that they are brought to embrace more deeply and practice with greater awareness the implications of their own faith.

Thomas Ryan, CSP, coordinates the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.