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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

It's all about practice, dialogue

Buddhists, Christians find their differences enhance their faith

Los Angeles

Historian Arnold Toynbee once said that when looking back on our time in a thousand years, historians will be more concerned with the interaction of Buddhism and Christianity than with wars, politics or racial strife.

Toynbee himself might have been fascinated, then, with the seventh international conference of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies titled “Hear the Cries of the World.” About 150 people -- nuns, monks, priests, scholars and the curious from many faiths -- gathered June 3-8 at Loyola Marymount University here to discuss the latest issues of a dialogue that has been gaining in importance for three decades.

“The purpose of our dialogue is not to convert,” said James Fredericks, a priest of the San Francisco archdiocese and the conference’s program director. “The purpose is also not to reach agreement,” Fredericks said. “We should think of dialogue as a conscious effort to create solidarity among our communities.”

While Buddhism and Christianity share many remarkable similarities, Fredericks said they also have “fascinating differences -- differences that have transformed my practice of my own faith.”

Religious practice was a particular focus of the conference. Kusala Bhikshu, a monk ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, explained that since Buddhism does not have grace, “it’s all about practice.” Benedictine Fr. Laurence Freeman noted that the word “practice” itself is emerging in the Christian vocabulary and that Buddhism is helping Christians rediscover their contemplative traditions.

As the spiritual teacher for the World Community for Christian Meditation, Freeman has seen firsthand how Catholic contemplation, once the dominion of monks and nuns, is moving beyond the monastery. He disagreed with the notion, embedded within both Buddhism and Christianity, that lay people cannot meditate as deeply as those whose lives are dedicated to religion.

“It’s a very theoretical approach to spiritual practice that doesn’t relate to reality, to people’s hunger for spiritual practice today,” Freeman said. “The hope for the salvation of the world lies in the greatest number of wise people.” He encouraged advocates for contemplation’s reemergence in Christianity to lead their local communities in practicing silence.

Buddhist-Christian dialogues began to bloom in the 1980s. The first international conference on Buddhist-Christian dialogue was held in 1980 in Hawaii, and has been held about every four years since then. Seven conferences on Buddhist and Christian contemplation were held between 1981 and 1988 at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. The Vatican has sponsored three Buddhist-Christian Colloquiums since 1995 and various monastic, scholarly and local dialogues have also taken place.

Not all of the interaction between the two religions has been cordial. In his 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote that Buddhism is an atheistic system in which enlightenment “comes down to the conviction that the world is bad.” While Rome stressed that the book merely stated the private opinions of the pope and does not carry Vatican authority, the pope’s words offended many Buddhists. When the book came up several times at this month’s conference, more than one person questioned how the pope can come out with an unofficial book?

Speakers at the conference emphasized that the conflicts and differences between the two religions should not be ignored. One discussion highlighted the pressures that Korean evangelical Christians were putting on their Buddhist compatriots in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Even with their differences, the two religions often complement each other. Robert Jingen Gunn, who spoke after Ewing, grew up in what he described as a fire and brimstone Southern Methodist church. In the middle of his life, he had a crisis of faith. “I could not tolerate God language,” said Gunn. “It felt like a bunch of baloney.” After receiving a flyer in the mail from Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, Gunn went for a visit, and ended up studying there for 10 years. He credits his encounter with Zen as a reason for returning to his roots. “It worked so well, I began to get reconciled with Christianity,” said Gunn, now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “I recovered the capacity to find meaning in it.”

Likewise, Christianity has reinvigorated aspects of Buddhism. Taigen Dan Leighton, a Soto Zen priest who teaches at the Berkley Graduate Theological Union, said that while Buddhism has reminded Christians of their contemplative tradition, Christianity has reminded Buddhists of their teachings on social justice.

Throughout the six days, speakers talked about how both faith traditions were working to address social justice issues. Benedictine Sr. Mary John Mananzan, who works in the Philippines, listed incest, rape, female circumcision and infanticide among abuses to be corrected. “How can society be so creative and so varied in inflicting pain on women?” she asked. Mananzan has helped establish feminist groups that address issues from environmentalism to worker’s rights to interfaith spirituality.

At an interfaith service held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, Dickson Kazuo Yagi, a retired Southern Baptist minister, read petitions that exemplified the conference title. “Hear the Cries of the World” refers to the Chinese meaning of Kuan Shi Yin, Buddhism’s bodhisattva of compassion who is often compared to the Virgin Mary.

“We hear the cries of our coalition troops in their moment of danger, fear and death,” Yagi said. “We hear the cries of terrorist insurgents, whose brothers call them freedom fighters, who shatter their own bodies into millions of bits for what they believe is a higher cause.”

In the final lecture, Stephanie Kaza, who teaches environmentalism at the University of Vermont, told a story. A disciple once told the Buddha that he suspected friendship was half of the spiritual life. Correcting the young monk, the Buddha told him it was the whole of spiritual life.

The story echoed what Laurence Freeman had said in one of the opening talks. He encouraged the audience to work at discovering a global spirituality, in which different spiritual practices make up the spokes of a wheel and meet at its hub. “After that experience of unity,” he said, “comes something of immense importance for the modern world, which is friendship between religions.”

Joseph Orso is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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