In Conversation with Buddhists

By Paul McKenna
February 1998

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Across the planet, Catholics and Buddhists are talking to one another. And this Buddhist-Christian conversation involves lay people, clergy and the official Church.

In 1991, John Paul II, speaking on dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists, observed that "dialogue with the great religions of Asia recalls for us the universal value of self-discipline, silence, and contemplation in developing the human person and in opening hearts to God and neighbour."

And in 1995, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue organized a five-day seminar on Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in Taiwan. Ten scholars from each religion participated.

Buddhist-Catholic dialogue is also being negotiated by monks and monastic nuns of both religions. In fact, Buddhist and Christian monastics have been associating with one another for more than two decades.

Their discussions came to a climax in the summer of 1996 when 100 Buddhists and Catholics lived together for six days at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

It was His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the world's best-known Buddhist, who suggested that the meeting be held in a monastic setting. He wanted an environment where he could be "a monk among monks." It was also he who recommended the Gethsemani site, the home monastery of Thomas Merton whom he had met shortly before Merton's death in 1968. Merton believed that the experience of unity could be found by faithfully searching out and living the core of one's own religious tradition: "I believe that by openness to Buddhism and Hinduism and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potential of our own tradition."

The Gethsemani Encounter, as the conference was called, focused on the spirituality of both monastic traditions.

This new relationship between Buddhists and Christians is part of a larger, international development in the monastic world.

Since the Second Vatican Council, monks of many world religions are cooperating with one another. For example, it is now common for Buddhist monks from Asia to live for periods of time in Catholic monasteries in North America and Europe. These Buddhist monks likewise invite Western Christian monks to visit their monasteries in the Orient.

To find out more, contact the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Bulletin, Abbey of Gethsemani, 3642 Monks Road, Trappist, Kentucky, 40051-6102 U.S.A., Fax: (502) 549-4124.

"Buddhist-Christian dialogue is important because today Buddhism has ceased to be an Eastern phenomenon and, like Christianity, has truly become a world religion. Between 1981 and 1991 the number of Buddhists in Canada increased by 243%. The situation calls for mutual understanding through dialogue as the adherents of both the Christian and Buddhist traditions struggle together to build a world community.

Pope John Paul II recognized the importance of the contemporary Buddhist encounter in September 1987 when he told Buddhists that they must "be encouraged and sustained by the knowledge that your dialogue endeavours are supported by the Catholic Church and appreciated by her for strengthening the bonds that unite all people who honestly seek for the truth."
(Fr. Ovey Mohammed, S.J.)

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