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The Dalai Lama Visits Gethsemani

Thomas Merton met with the Dalai Lama weeks before Merton's 1968 death. Last summer the Buddhist leader returned the visit by coming to Gethsemani Abbey to attend an interreligious gathering of monks.

By Murray Bodo, O.F.M.


"Now our spirits are one," the Dalai Lama said after praying at Merton's grave along with Abbot Timothy Kelly.

Merton and the Dalai Lama
The Way(s) of Truth
The Temple Within
The Good in Other Traditions
Listening Hard
Prayer and Action
A Close Encounter

When 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 had lived.

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 Dalai Lama

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.

  Listening Hard

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.

Simple gestures 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 meditation.

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 is everywhere."

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 words.

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 Publications).

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 Žsocial issues.'"

Venerable Ratanasara's 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: " 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 Ages.

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.

Murray Bodo, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest and the author of 14 books, most recently A 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.

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