Pope John Paul II called for interfaith dialogue to be a key component
of Christian preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000,
his words were surely welcomed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The exiled spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists
has himself been calling for renewed cooperation among the world's
religions. And so it came that a few months back the Dalai Lama,
under heavy security because of constant threats to his life,
descended by helicopter to the Trappist Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani,
in Kentucky, to attend an East-West gathering of the Monastic
Interreligious Dialogue. It was
a gesture of solidarity to his friend
the late Thomas Merton, taking place on the grounds where Merton
At the July gathering,
saffron-robed Buddhist monks and nuns, gray-robed Zen monks and
nuns pray and share spiritual insights with black-robed Benedictine
and white-and-black-robed Cistercian monks and nuns. And in their
midst the Dalai Lama, a world religious leader, sits as a monk
among monks, not separately on a dais.
A man of humility
and holiness, the Dalai Lama is participating in an interreligious
monastic dialogue whose roots are in Vatican II. That Council's
Relationship of the Church to Non- Christian Religions
made the ground-breaking observation that truth is also to be
found in non-Christian religions.
It was in response
to Vatican II that the Confederation of Benedictine Abbots sponsored
their first Asian East-West Intermonastic Conference in Bangkok,
Thailand, in 1968. That conference brought the Cistercian monk
Father Louis, better known as Thomas Merton, to Bangkok, preceded
by a three-day meeting in India with the Dalai Lama. As it turned
out, it was Merton's last trip. He died tragically in Bangkok,
apparently electrocuted by a faulty room fan.
Merton and the
Now, in a reciprocal
pilgrimage 28 years later, the Dalai Lama walks
the gentle Kentucky rise to Thomas Merton's grave where he kneels
and prays. As he rises from the ground, he says, "Now our spirits
are one; I am at peace." This whole conference is for the Dalai
Lama more than an inter-religious dialogue: It is a belated but
longed-for reunion with the spirit of his friend Thomas Merton.
In a letter to his
abbot, Dom Flavian Burns, Merton wrote of his own 1968 encounter
with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan
government-in-exile: "The talks with the Dalai Lama were very
fine. He did a lot of off-the-record talking, very open and sincere,
a very impressive person, deeply concerned about the contemplative
life, and also very learned. I have seldom met anyone with whom
I clicked so well, and I feel that we have become good friends."
And so they had.
For here in the midst of this dialogue and retreat, it is evident
to everyone that the Dalai Lama maintains a deep affection for Thomas
Merton. Officially this visit to a Catholic monastery is a follow-up
to 1987's Assisi encounter, where Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama
and other representatives of world religions met in St. Francis'
hometown to pray together. Yet one suspects that Merton is the main
reason the Dalai Lama has come to Gethsemani.
His Holiness Pope
John Paul, following the example of Vatican II and of Pope Paul
VI, has lent his encouragement to ongoing interreligious dialogue
like the one happening here at Gethsemani. In 1981 he wrote, "All
Christians must be committed to dialogue with believers of all religions,
so that mutual understanding and collaboration may grow, so that
moral values may be strengthened, and so that God may be praised
in all creation." Those words are prominently displayed on
the brochure for this dialogue retreat--and it is a retreat.
Here is much prayer
and silence, much "deep breathing-in of the thoughts and words
of others, much exhaling of what is alien and divisive." That
image was proposed by Father Pierre de Bethune, Benedictine prior
of the Priory of Clerlande in Belgium, consultor at the Pontifical
Council for Interreligious Dialogue since 1985, and general secretary
of Monastic Interfaith Dialogue Committees. Father Pierre's presence
and that of Portland, Maine, Bishop Joseph Gerry, member of the
Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, are a signal to
all of us Catholics present. This Gethsemani encounter is important
to our hierarchy.
On the Buddhist
side the roster reads like a Who's Who of important leaders
from India, Myanmar (the former Burma), Cambodia, Japan, Taiwan,
England and the United States. It includes the Venerable Maha Ghosananda,
"the Cambodian Gandhi," nominated three times for the
Nobel Peace Prize for his work among Cambodian refugees.
The atmosphere is
cordial and friendly; the schedule, monastic. A typical day of this
five-day encounter is as follows: 5:45 a.m. sitting meditation,
6:15 Catholic Mass, 7:00 breakfast, 8:00 morning sessions, 11:00
Buddhist rituals, noon lunch, 1:00 p.m. rest/one-on-one sharing,
2:30 afternoon sessions, 5:30 vespers in Abbey Church, 6:00 dinner,
6:45 evening session. Three of the scholarly talks are given by
the Dalai Lama: "The Tibetan Buddhist Approaches to Meditation,"
"Meditation Stages and Experiences on the Tibetan Buddhist
Path" and "The Bodhisattva as an Ideal for Both Personal-Contemplative
and Collective-Social Transformation."
The Dalai Lama sits
and listens to the other talks as well, including Christian talks
like Father Pierre De Bethune's "Stages of Prayer and Contemplation
in the Christian Spiritual Life" and Sister Gilchrist Lavigne's
"Phenomena Associated With the Stages in Spiritual Growth."
And like the other speakers, the Dalai Lama entertains questions
and takes part in dialogue.
The Way(s) of Truth
For many of us the
high point of the Dalai Lama's presence is the interfaith ritual
in the Abbey Church in memory of Thomas Merton. It is led by Dom
James Conner, Cistercian abbot of Assumption Abbey at Ava, Missouri,
who lived with Merton at Gethsemani. Thomas Merton, Conner says,
"came to recognize that the East has something which we in
the West tend to overlook or neglect." Quoting Merton's Asian
Journal, Connor continues, "I think that we have now reached
a stage of (long overdue) religious maturity at which it may be
possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian
and Western monastic commitment and yet learn in depth from, say,
a Buddhist or Hindu discipline or experience."
The Dalai Lama credits
Merton with opening his eyes to the truth that Tibetan Buddhism
does not hold the world's only truth. "As a result of meeting
with him, my attitude toward Christianity was much changed,"
he tells the group. He says that the Gethsemani meeting would fulfill
Merton's wishes for both scholarly sharing and praying together
among monks of different traditions. "Thomas Merton is someone
we can look up to. He had the qualities of being learned, disciplined
and having a good heart."
Then the Dalai Lama
places zinnia blossoms around a picture of Merton which rests on
a table in front of the choir podium. He places a white shawl about
the picture. He then offers Abbot Timothy Kelly of Gethsemani a
silver chalice containing an orange--a chalice is never given empty.
Abbot Timothy gives the Dalai Lama the three recently published
volumes of Thomas Merton's early diaries.
like these abound during this retreat: Abbot Timothy and the Dalai
Lama planting an evergreen tree, small acts of kindness between
Buddhists and Christians, quiet conversations taking place in corners
of the abbey, on hillsides, on patios. And every day there are vans
taking participants to Thomas Merton's hermitage, a short distance
from the Abbey.
Prayer and Action
The simple cinder-block
hermitage becomes a daily pilgrimage for practically all the participants:
Merton has touched everyone here in one way or another. Speakers quote
him often, tell stories, cite from his books, more than 40 of which
are still in print. "Merton was part of my own spiritual journey
in college," says Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist and cofounder
of the Insight Meditation Society of Barre, Massachusetts.
Following the example
of Merton, Christians ask Buddhists about methods and practices of
prayer. Buddhists, in turn, ask about the long tradition of social
action in the Christian tradition. Sister Mary Margaret Funk, a Benedictine
nun from Beech Grove, Indiana, and executive director of Monastic
Interreligious Dialogue, notes that, while Christianity has a long
tradition of meditation, it has been obscured by centuries of emphasis
on social action. Now many Christians are looking to the East to relearn
Sister Mary Margaret
asks the Dalai Lama, who is encouraging Tibetan monks to become more
socially involved, how he reconciles the apparent conflict between
prayer and social action. The Dalai Lama has no easy answer, but he
says he would recommend a "50-50" split between prayer and
action. Buddhists are inclined to withdraw from the world, he says.
"We have to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters. We
should have more socially engaged activities." He acknowledges
that Buddhist monks' lack of social action partly prompted Pope John
Paul II's widely publicized criticism of Buddhism in his 1994 book,
Crossing the Threshold of Hope. But the Dalai Lama downplays
the controversy and says he had a warm meeting with Pope John Paul
earlier this year.
One Buddhist monk who
personi-fies social action among Buddhist monastics is the Venerable
Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia. This man of peace says simply, "We
Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the
temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering.
If we listen to the Buddha, Christ or Gandhi, we can do nothing else.
The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos and the battlefields will
become our temples. We have so much work to do."
This will be a slow
transformation, he adds, since many Asians rely on traditional monkhood.
Many fellow Cambodians tell him that monks belong in the temple. In
spite of the difficult adjustment, he says, "We monks must answer
the increasingly loud cries of suffering. We only need to remember
that our temple is with us always. We are our temple."
Here in this simple,
holy man, I hear the very essence of this retreat. Neither prayer
nor retreat is for us alone; always they imply an entering in, as
in breathing in, that necessarily involves a coming out, a breathing
out, if there is to be a life-giving balance. We pray and we learn
to act with love in the world; we act with love in the world and we
learn to pray.
The Temple Within
There is much discussion
of this temple within, that we take with us wherever we go. Sister
Gilchrist Lavigne, a Trappistine nun from Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque,
Iowa, reads a passage from Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty
Bystander that bears repeating: "At the center of our being
is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion,
a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to
God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our
lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the
brutalities of our own will.
"This little point
of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of
God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty,
as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a
pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in
everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points
of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would
make all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely....I have
no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven
I think of St. Bonaventure,
the great Franciscan mystical theologian, of his beautiful rendering
of the same experience in his book On the Perfection of Life:
"When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved
into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with him, forgetting
all exterior concerns; and so rise aloft with all your love and all
your mind, your affections, your desires and devotion.
"And let not your
mind wander away from your prayer, but rise again and again in the
fervor of your piety until you enter into the place of the wonderful
tabernacle, even the house of God. There your heart will be delighted
at the sight of the Beloved, and you will taste and see how good the
Lord is, and how great is his goodness."
For me and for many
others this whole dialogue retreat has been the search for that place
within all of us, named differently in different traditions, where
we meet that which is deepest in ourselves and in our tradition. It
is from there that we reach out to others in love, or in the language
of Buddhism, in lovingkindness, a single word. The Dalai Lama
himself says, "My religion is kindness." And to those of
us who have been privileged to experience his presence, his actions
match his words.
A Close Encounter
At one point of the
retreat, unexpectedly and unsought, I find myself, with only a very
few of the participants in the room, very close to His Holiness the
Dalai Lama. Something moves me to approach him and ask if we could
pray together briefly. Taking my hand, he prays with me in silence,
then looks into my eyes with lovingkindness such as I have
seldom experienced. Such is the effect of holiness; it speaks without
This simple, loving
gesture touches some deep part of me, as does the Dalai Lama's encouragement
of each of us to remain faithful to our own tradition. He says, "We
need to experience more deeply the meanings and spiritual values of
our own religious tradition--we need to know these teachings not only
on an intellectual level but also through our own deeper experience.
We must practice our own religion sincerely; it must become part of
our lives." He adds that there is no competition among those
gathered at Gethsemani, "except in implementation: We should
compete in implementing in our lives what we believe."
The Dalai Lama's love
for Christ and his ecumenical spirit are evident during this whole
retreat. They are a part of all his talks on spirituality and world
peace. In fact, he has just published a book on Jesus, entitled The
Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom
In a talk given in
Melbourne, Australia, in 1992, the Dalai Lama told a story that is
emblematic of the ecumenical spirit he exudes here at Gethsemani:
"On another occasion I met with a Catholic monk in Monserrat,
one of Spain's famous monasteries. I was told that this monk had lived
for several years as a hermit on a hill just behind the monastery.
When I visited the monastery, he came down from his hermitage especially
to meet me.
"As it happened,
his English was even worse than mine, and this gave me more courage
to speak with him! We remained face-to-face, and I inquired, ŽIn those
few years, what were you doing on that hill?' He looked at me and
answered, ŽMeditation on compassion, on love.' As he said those few
words, I understood the message through his eyes. I truly developed
genuine admiration for this person and for others like him. Such experiences
have helped confirm in my mind that all the world's religions have
the potential to produce good people, despite their differences of
philosophy and doctrine."
Such is my own experience
of the Dalai Lama. The whole conference for me is in his eyes, in
the warm touch of his hand in mine, in his silent prayer with me:
prayer, silence, lovingkindness. As one Buddhist monk observed,
lovingkindness, like the arms of Jesus on the cross, reaches
out and embraces the whole world.
The Good in Other Traditions
The witness of an ecumenical
retreat such as this Gethsemani encounter is that one need not give
up one's own convictions or beliefs in order to pray together, talk
together in love and kindness. In fact, by adhering with deep faith
to one's own traditions and yet keeping ever an open heart for all
good, we all can more easily see the good in other traditions.
In the words of Pope
Paul Vl, "Other religions found everywhere try to counter the
restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing
Žways,' comprising teachings, rules of life and sacred rites."
I see these other "ways,"
these "teachings, rules of life and sacred rites" here at
Gethsemani. I turn again to my own, examine the practices, the teachings,
the rules and sacred rites that have brought me to this point in my
spiritual life. Being here, listening, observing and receiving the
lovingkindness of my Buddhist brothers and sisters has enriched
me. It has made me want to learn more about how they pray, what prayer
does in their lives. It makes me want to share with them what Christ
has done in my life, how he has taught me to pray, what Christian
contemplation and meditation have done for me.
The Gethsemani encounter
is about people praying together, sharing and learning, as the Dalai
Lama counsels, that "each religious tradition has its own wonderful
message to convey." I hear these words and I agree, but I am
also aware, as a Catholic priest, of Pope John Paul II's caveats in
Crossing the Threshold of Hope, making the point that Buddhism
and Christianity view creation differently: "The Ženlightenment'
experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world
is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man....The
fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called
nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the
world" (pp. 85-86).
Then I hear Venerable
Havanpola Ratanasara, president of the College of Buddhist Studies
in Los Angeles, responding to the pope's comments: "Now it seems
that such Žindifference' to the world, were it true, would be but
a step removed from contempt for the world. And nothing could be farther
removed from the Buddhist attitude. In fact, it was out of love for
the world that the Buddha spent 45 years of his life teaching. Nor
was he reticent about involving himself in what today we would call
response reminds me that this is a serious theological dialogue as
well as a retreat. I remind myself that I am not a theologian, I am
a practitioner of prayer and a Catholic priest who needs to remember
who he is and how central is Christ to any prayer-form he enters.
I am here to pray and to listen, mindful always that, even as a pray-er,
I need to hear Pope John Paul II's further words in Crossing the
Threshold of Hope: "...it is not inappropriate to caution
those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating
in the religious traditions of the Far East--for example, techniques
and methods of meditation and ascetical practice. In some quarters
these have become fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically.
First one should know one's own spiritual heritage well and consider
whether it is right to set it aside lightly" (pp. 89-90).
With these words I
am back to the Dalai Lama's exhortation that we remain faithful to
our own tradition, which is what this whole retreat has encouraged
in me. I hear about prayer techniques here; I hear words like Nibbana,
Buddha self, Buddha nature, lovingkindness. I
see Buddhist monks and laypeople whose Buddhist practices have led
them to deep interiority and kindness. I see Christian monks and laypeople
whose Christian meditation and contemplation have led them to deep
interiority and charity.
Most of all, I begin
to remember the depth and continuity of my own Christian ascetical
and contemplative tradition. I think of Meister Eckhart, John Tauler,
Henry Suso, Jan de Ruysbroeck, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the
Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola, and particularly of my own holy father,
St. Francis of Assisi, the greatest Christian mystic of the Middle
For all of them Jesus
Christ is the source, the center and the object of all prayer, for
it is in him, through him, with him and for him that all creation
exists. He is the Incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed
Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As a Christian I must be deeply
grounded in that reality before I begin to incorporate techniques
and insights from other prayer practices into my own life of prayer.
This retreat with His
Holiness the Dalai Lama did just that for me: It made me even more
aware of the centrality of Christ in my own prayer life. It made me
even more eager to share with others in the future about where it
is that all genuine prayer finally comes together. All things eventually
come together in God, who meets us in prayer.
O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest and the author of 14 books, most
Retreat With Francis and Clare of Assisi, coauthored with Susan
Saint Sing (St. Anthony Messenger Press). Frequently published in
literary magazines, Father Murray is presently writer-in-residence
at Thomas More College, Crestview Hills, Kentucky. This article
is adapted from a book about religious retreats that he is writing
for Dial Press.