The first in a new four-year series of dialogues between Catholics and Buddhists on the West Coast was held at Mercy Center, Burlingame, California, on the topic: “Abiding in Christ; Taking Refuge in the Buddha: Then What?” The January 28-February 2, 2008 meeting was co-chaired by the Rev. Heng Sure of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and the Institute for World Religions, Berkeley, California, and by Most Rev. John C. Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City, Utah.
“To abide in Christ” encapsulates the deepest meaning of Christian life as presented in John 14-15, and witnessed to in the baptismal ritual. There the candidate is incorporated into Christ, as Paul teaches (Rom 6:3-11; cf Col 2:12). “To take refuge in the Buddha” is to commit oneself through vows to follow the Buddhist path. Previous meetings of the dialogue have explored the distinctive characteristics of these two commitments. The topic for 2008 followed logically: once committed to a way, how is that way lived out? So: “Abiding in Christ; Taking Refuge in the Buddha: Then What?”
Resonating with the insightful comments of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Osservatore Romano, 15 December, 2007), this meeting pursued an “exchange of our own spiritual experiences.” Two practical strategies were employed in order to facilitate this exchange. The first strategy was embodied in our respectful presence at each community’s times of spiritual practice. Each evening the Eucharist was celebrated by one of the Catholic priest-participants; following the guidelines for combining Evening Prayer with Eucharist, the Catholic women participants led the Psalmody and the Liturgy of the Word. Each morning before breakfast one of the Buddhist monastics led a half hour of sitting meditation with concise comments on practice.
The second strategy was to organize a set of experiential presentations, planned by two teams, one Buddhist for the Thursday sessions and one Catholic for the Friday sessions. Each team demonstrated examples of spiritual practice to the larger group of participants. Group discussion followed each exercise, with critical evaluation in a concluding plenary session. The Thursday presentations included: 1) the Buddhist daily practice of taking refuge with the use of a chanted formula of repentance and bodily prostrations; 2) the “appreciative interview” as a non-invasive model of asking questions about one’s autobiography and spiritual experiences; 3) personal reflections on “Taking Refuge” and its relationship to the ongoing commitment to the Buddhist Path. Those on Friday included: 1) Attentiveness and Awareness in the Present Moment: A Contemplative Training Exercise for Catholics; 2) Seeing the Face of Christ in the Poor: the Vincentian Apostolate in the US; 3) Reflection on the classical pattern of Christian life, involving both liturgical and private prayer, and leading one by stages from separation from old habits (“purgation”) through growth and development (“illumination”) to maturity (“unity”).
These exercises, presentations, and discussions elucidated the characteristics of spiritual maturity. Both sides noted several features that suggest convergences in our respective practices of spiritual discernment. One such feature is the role of the spiritual teacher or guide in supporting the transitions that Buddhist and Christian contemplatives, lay and monastic, experience over the years. A second important feature is the development of deeper ties with one’s family of origin, often including reconciliation and healing of past conflicts. A third feature is recognizable in committed practitioners who begin to move beyond particular enlightenment experiences into a more all-encompassing sense of the spiritual in their lives. As a result of the exercises, some contemplatives on both sides reported a recovery of non-verbal, creative and emotional personality features that had remained latent during many years of ascetic practice and spiritual formation.
The second meeting in the current cycle is scheduled for January 28-31, 2009. A four-member steering committee was appointed to plan innovative approaches, rooted in the dialogue of religious experience and the dialogue of life, to the diversity of ethnicity and perspective that we observe in our communities.
Participants: Rev. Heng Sure, Bishop John Wester, Dr. Snjezana Akpinar, Rev. Gigen Victoria Austin, Rev. Jan Chozen Bays, Sr. Phyllis D’Anna, S.N.D., Sr. Mary Ann Donovan, SC, Dr. Ron Epstein, Rev. Robert Hale, OSB Cam, Bhikshuni Heng Chih, Ven. Heng Gwei, Gelong Losang Monlam, Mrs. Lorraine Moriarty, Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke, Rev. Canon Francis Tiso, Dr. Martin Verhoeven, John Francis (observer), and David Rounds (observer.)