The Second Gethsemani Encounter
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
By some good fortune I was invited to attend
the second Gethsemani Encounter, a six-day interfaith dialogue between
Buddhists and Christians, held at Gethsemani Abbey, Thomas Merton's
monastery in Kentucky. Organized by Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue,
a Catholic monastic organization, the dialogue consisted of about
twenty Buddhists (Theravada, Zen and Tibetan) and thirty-five Catholics
(mostly Benedictine and Trappist, with representatives of a few
other orders). His Holiness the Dalai Lama had intended to be present,
but was unable to attend due to illness.
The schedule was full with early morning meditation,
two sessions in the morning, a Buddhist ritual, lunch, two afternoon
sessions, dinner, and a Christian ritual. Our topic was "Suffering
and Its Transformation." Each session began with a brief summary
by a presenter of his or her paper, which all of us had read beforehand.
This was followed by an hour of discussion on the topic. We were
encouraged to keep our comments brief, so that as many people as
possible could contribute to the large group discussion. The formal
sessions were only one aspect of the conference; so much valuable
interchange occurred in personal discussions during the break times.
The first day the theme was "Suffering
Caused by a Sense of Unworthiness and Alienation." Here we
emphasized our personal suffering and how to overcome it. As we
were just getting to know each other, the discussion remained somewhat
intellectual, although some of the presenters told personal stories.
In many cases, the discussion focused on explaining theological
or philosophical points of one faith to members of the other.
The second day the ice was broken and people
spoke more freely. This day's topic was "Suffering Caused by
Greed and Consumerism," during which we talked about the challenges
facing society as a whole as well as individuals. My paper was on
"Spiritual Consumerism," in which I discussed the potential
effect of consumer mentality on both spiritual seekers and teachers
in the West.
The third day we focused on "Suffering
Caused by Structural Violence," in which we were asked to examine
how our own religious institutions caused suffering as well as how
societal structures and laws perpetuated misery and injustice. We
talked about the "elephant in the room" that we hadn't
spoken of previously - pedophilia and its institutional cover-up
in the Catholic Church. Then, we spoke of "clericalism,"
the perpetuation of the values and power of the male elite in both
of our religions. Both women and men spoke openly here, without
animosity or defensiveness.
The fourth day we dwelt on "Suffering
Caused by Sickness and Ageing." Interestingly, in the discussion
we spoke of how to help others who were dying and then our different
theological views of life after death. In the third sessions, one
participant pointed out that we had avoided speaking personally
about sickness and ageing even though one presenter had led us through
such a meditation. At this point, participants opened up and told
moving stories from their lives about how their religious practice
had helped them to deal with illness and accidents and how those
events propelled them to deeper practice.
The Buddhists in the conference were a mix of
Asians and Westerners from the Theravada, Zen (Chinese, Korean,
and Japanese), and Tibetan traditions, and not everyone knew each
other. Thus we decided to get together over two evenings to introduce
each other. These introductions were fascinating and very helpful,
especially for those who did not know much about other Buddhist
traditions or about Buddhist activities in the USA. Those of us
"young ones" (I've been ordained 25 years) rejoiced at
our elders' practice. Geshe Sopa had been a monk over 60 years and
Bhante Gunaratna over 54!
The last day two participants gave summaries
and dialogued about their impressions before the conversation was
opened to all participants. The goodwill was palatable.
I'm still digesting the experience, but a few
points are prominent. First, I was struck by the fact that the Christians
continually cited and talked about Jesus' life whenever they spoke
of Christian doctrine. While the Buddha's life is an example of
how the Dharma is to be practiced, we usually discuss the teachings
without referring to his life or extensively analyzing what different
Second, I was jolted when Fr. Thomas Keating
said that young monastics entering Christian monasteries do rituals,
service work, and so forth, but they aren't taught a practice, a
method of meditation for working with their mind. As he was saying
this, across the room a young Benedictine monk nodded his head vigorously.
This was corroborated by a nun who told of a near-death experience
she had and said that she came out of it knowing that she had to
find a practice to do. She now does centering prayer, a Christian
practice taught by Thomas Keating.
Third, I could feel the faith and the good
intentions of the Catholic monastics there. I could also feel the
weight of the history of the Catholic Church, the wars it has perpetrated,
the cultures in which it has been an imperialistic power, the injustices
towards which it has turned a blind eye. I wondered how my Catholic
friends felt about that: to what extent did it pain them to see
the harm done in the name of God and Jesus? How do they feel being
part of that institution?, It took me a long time in my Buddhist
practice to figure out that Dharma and Buddhist religious institutions
were two separate things. The former is the unstained path to enlightenment,
the latter are institutions created by us flawed sentient beings.
I could have faith in the Dharma without having to get involved
in the politics of Buddhist institutions or defend institutional
errors. I wonder how my Catholic monastic friends stand in that
regard, where the authenticity of the Church is part of the religious
doctrine itself. I also wonder how we Buddhists can learn from the
Church's history and avoid such difficulties ourselves in the future.
Fourth, the Catholic and Buddhist nuns bonded
very well. The last day two Catholic sisters suggested we nuns get
together over a weekend in a smaller gathering so that we could
go into topics of mutual interest in more depth. That would be great!
Fifth, it was unusual for me to be in a gathering
where I was one of the youngest participants (I'm 51). The intellectual
inquiry, patience, stability, and willingness to learn of those
who had been ordained forty or fifty years inspired me.
I haven't yet heard talk of specific further
gatherings, but undoubtedly there will be some. The mutual interest
and support was wonderful. The organizers are planning to put out
a book with the papers and dialogue from the conference.