Buddhists and Christians 'Meeting on the Path': Beginning to Understand Their Most Basic Convictions

February 15, 2006 By Public Affairs Office

WASHINGTON (February 15, 2006)--The fourth in a series of dialogues between Catholics and Zen and Ch'an Buddhists was held at Mercy Center, Burlingame, CA, on the topic, "Meeting on the Path." The January 26-29 meeting was co-chaired by Auxiliary Bishop John C. Wester of San Francisco and Rev. Alan Senauke of the Berkeley Zen Center, substituting for Abbot Paul Haller of the San Francisco Zen Center.

In their exploration of the phenomenology of "meeting," participants sought to examine in depth the nature of the human person, since persons are those who meet along the way as they engage in the practices that the spiritual journey entails. Dr. Martin Verhoeven presented a paper on the Buddhist teaching of non-self as an essential feature of Buddhist soteriology, since belief in a permanent "self" is the root of the bondage of sentient beings to the cycle of rebirth. Respondents took note of the profound challenges that the non-self teaching offers both to classic Brahmanical thought as well as to Hellenistic philosophy. For modern Westerners, this teaching resists the efforts of scholars to provide adequate translations for the Buddhist technical terms. Participants saw a need to deepen their understanding of the philosophical and theological developments that have shaped Western thought since the rise of Christianity. Biblical notions of the person are not easily made congruent with the Brahmanical notion of the atman, nor does the classic analysis of the psyche or nous in Greek thought completely coincide with Christian understandings of the soul, even when Christians assert the "immortality of the soul." By "meeting on the path" Buddhists and Christians, perhaps for the first time in history are beginning to understand their most basic, if contrasting, convictions.

Professor Mary Ann Donovan of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley illustrated the emergence of a distinctly Christian "anthropology" by discussing the life and thought of the Apostle Paul, of St. Antony of Egypt and his biographer St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and of St. Augustine of Hippo. In the early Christian theology of the graced transformation and even "divinization" of the human person, Professor Donovan illustrated how soteriological and eschatological convictions coming from the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ reshaped Hellenistic philosophical categories, even when those categories were recycled by Christian writers of the Patristic period. Respondents took note of the continuities between Jewish and Christian views of the person as a unitary whole.

Fr. Francis Tiso of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), pointed out the need to recover an understanding of the impact of Hellenism on the Judaism in which the New Testament experience emerged; it is not that the Jewish people accepted everything in Plato, Aristotle, or the Stoics. Rather, they found new ways to understand their experience of God making use of Hellenistic methods of interpretation, as we see in Philo of Alexandria. Jewish scholars also composed works in Greek (e.g the book of Wisdom, the books of Maccabees) and translated their scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint, extensively quoted in the original text of the New Testament). Thus, Judaism was poised to become the matrix for a universal religion in the Mediterranean world.

Focusing on the unique meeting of master and disciple, Rev. Heng Sure offered, in the form of a taped presentation, an interpretation of the Gandhavyuha portion of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hua Yen) in which the bodhisattva Manjusri guides the prospective bodhisattva Sudhana across a series of meetings with fifty-three extremely diverse teachers that progressively transform the young disciple's mindstream.

Similarly, Fr. Robert Hale presented the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing and other works of late fourteenth century English mysticism as representing a model spiritual director and spiritual disciple, as evidenced by the tone and content of his written works which adopt the literary convention of an older guide addressing the inquiries of a young hermit beginning and proceeding along the spiritual path.

It was a strong conviction of this dialogue group that this fourth gathering would address the question of possible models for Buddhist-Catholic collaboration in the field of social engagement. Thus, "meeting on the path" would also open out to practices of service to a wider world, including persons and communities who do not share our beliefs. Illustrative of this objective, Lorraine Moriarty and Alan Senauke presented a discussion of prison ministry in the Bay Area in which Catholics and Buddhists are currently collaborating. Such ministry includes prison visitation, meditation groups, and assistance to the families of prisoners, and also addresses consciousness raising about the moral deficiency of the death penalty. Rev. Heng Liang examined the practice of restorative justice in Taiwan, with possible applications to the United States. Other participants commented on the struggle to reach out to prisoners and to diminish tendencies to violence in their respective communities and neighborhoods. Buddhist participants requested copies of recent Catholic documents on the death penalty, immigration concerns, and peace making in order better to coordinate collaborative efforts in these areas.

Respecting the collaborative modality that has characterized this dialogue since its inception, the group decided to work through a steering committee in order to continue the work of this dialogue. The committee will meet in early May to firm up plans for the next meeting, at which it will be determined whether or not to return to the quadrennium model for a new cycle of meetings. Participants were invited to offer new models for this dialogue, bringing in more emphasis on shared contemplative practice as well as greater attention to ways by which they may impact society in the practice of peace making, reduction of violence, and conflict resolution. The dates for the next meeting will be January 25-28, 2007, with the location to be established through the steering committee

Participants this year included: Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke, Bishop John Wester, Dr. Ronald Epstein, Rev. James Fredericks, Rev. Myo Dennis Lahey, Sr. Mary Ann Donovan, Lorraine Moriarty, Rev. Heng Jiao, Rev. Heng Liang, Professor Snjezana Akpinar, Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, Rev. Thomas Devereaux, Rev. Robert Hale, Dr. Martin Verhoeven, Rev. Francis Tiso, and Rev. Jan Chozen Bays. Observers included Vivian Hsu, John Francis, and David Rounds. Rev. Heng Sure presented a taped paper and Deacon Thom McGowan contributed a paper on violence in our communities, but was unable to attend the meeting.