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Date : 09-10-19 01:36
Christian-Buddhist Dialogue as Spiritual Experience
 Writer : Pierre (89.♡.189.20)
Hit : 2,393  
Christian-Buddhist Dialogue as Spiritual Experience

Fr. Pierre de Bethune

from Bulletin 52, January 1995

This article has been translated by Sr. GilChrist Lavigne, OCSO, OL of Mississippi Abbey, Iowa
Through all the ages there have been deep interreligious encounters. In spite of all the obstacles that religious have placed in the way of dialogue, there have been pioneers in the area of spiritual exchange. With admiration we rediscover them in our day. However, in order that dialogue at the spiritual level be no longer exceptional or marginal, in order that it be possible on a large scale, and encouraged by official channels, it had to pass a threshold, or perhaps a barrier. This has happened very recently, although among a large number of believers this step has not yet been taken; but already we can reflect on the spiritual significance of this evolution.

Until recently dialogue seemed to become more difficult in proportion to its depth. There were numerous exchanges in a neighborly context or even at the academic level, but as soon as we touched on deeper questions, concerning the reasons for our belief or the experience of prayer, a deep fear enveloped the participants. For Westerners, fear was an understatement. It was rather a question of real terror. Participation in the other’s prayer, communing in the sacred, was considered the “abomination of desolation.” However, attitudes evolved—timidly in the beginning—but gradually more and more radically.

Attitudes evolved because experiences of interreligious meetings showed in an obvious manner that exchanges at the spiritual level were possible and even astonishingly life-giving.

I reflect, in particular, on East–West exchanges made concurrently by the Institute for Zen Studies at Hanazono University in Kyoto and the Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.(1) During these exchanges monks and nuns lived in Christian monasteries in Europe (St. Benoit Sur Loire, Bellefontaine, En Calcut, and Pradines in France), while Christian religious went to live in Zen monasteries in Japan. It would take too much time to describe here these encounters.(2)

I will speak only of the effects that they had on the participants, and the influence of these interfaith exchanges on their pastoral reflections. It is because of these experiences that the document entitled: “The Attitude of the Catholic Church towards believers of other Religions” was published in 1984 by the Secretariat for Non-Christians.(3) It includes a special paragraph on the “dialogue of religious experience:” “At a deeper level, people rooted in their own religious traditions can share their experience of prayer, contemplation, faith and commitment, expressions and methods in their search for the Absolute( . . .). Interreligious dialogue naturally leads people to share with others their reasons for their own faith, and does not stop in the face of differences, which are sometimes profound, but submits with humility and trust to God ‘who is larger than our hearts.’ (John 3:20). And so, the Christian has an occasion to offer the other the possibility of knowing, in a lived manner, the values of the Gospel.”(4)

Pope John Paul II was even more explicit in a talk he gave to Buddhist and Christian monks which he received in an audience the 20th of September, 1989: “Your dialogue at the monastic level is truly a religious experience, a meeting in the depth of the heart, held in a spirit of poverty, of mutual trust and profound esteem for your respective traditions.(5)

Proceeding from these texts, I will try to develop a reflection on interreligious dialogue considered as a fundamentally spiritual and religious endeavor. Linguistic, historical, philosophical and theological training is necessary, but basic to all of this is a spiritual encounter. This is the reason we can rightfully speak of a dialogue that is intra-religious, according to Raimundo Panikkar’s expression, this, a dialogue among the religions which is realized within the depths of our religious life. While based on an official text, the following reflections are primarily my own, but I am sure that one person or another will identify with the descriptions I give here.

1. An Experience of the Body
The meeting of Christians with the East often began with “methods” taught in Hinduism of Buddhism: hatha yoga, aikido or do, zazen, etc. These are practices which engage the entire person, beginning with the body.

Recourse to these practices can start with very utilitarian aims: a healthy life, the struggle against distractions during meditation, quieting the psyche. . . . But those advanced in these methods have often been drawn much further that they had anticipated. This is sometimes what certain Christians denounce with vehemence because to them, the foundation of spiritual experience seems to be seriously jeopardized.(6) Imperceptibly, these eastern methods could bring on an atmosphere that is incompatible with the traditional Christian faith. I have mentioned these reactions because they point to the importance of such an encounter. In fact, these methods help us to discover other ways of experiencing the numinous.

We ascertain that the body can be entirely taken over by the spiritual. It seems paradoxical to affirm that bodily experience is sometimes a spiritual experience of conversion, because we are used to opposing the two and to consider the mortification of the body as the only way of liberating the spirit. But for the person who watches or, better still, practices the chanoyn (the tea ceremony), or even zazen, this becomes evident. When we allow the intellect to descend into the heart, and even to the hara (the stomach), the life of prayer is transformed. Life can even be renewed. Yes, progress in the spiritual life sometimes passes through a better experience of the body.

Nakagawa Soen Roshi, a Japanese Master who died in 1984, used to say: “We have the faith of our breathing.” or “Show me your manner of breathing and I will see your faith.” In effect, the body doesn’t lie and peace invested at this level says a lot about trust and abandonment to God’s will. Inversely, a deliberate effort to quiet the body is an important contribution to the spiritual quest. I am not saying that bodily practices effect a conversion. I only say that the interplay of commitment on this level is more important than we had realized.

“Show me your manner of breathing and I will see your faith.”—Nakagawa Soen Roshi

As we borrow these methods, many elements of our spiritual life seem confused. There is a re-evaluation. It is then, for example, that certain convictions about our beliefs seem cerebral and lose their attraction, while other gospel values impose themselves with new strength. For those who have already allowed their faith to take bodily expression in the whole of their existence, this discovery is very beneficial, as it can help to better incarnate their faith.

It is a question of rediscovery, as our Christian tradition has always known analogous “methods,” though not always articulated them. Besides hesychasm, there are all the practices of the monastic life, and even some Ignatian practices. Christianity has always respected the body because it is the religion of God incarnate! Unfortunately, it has not always had the anthropology that its theology deserved. Many insights were not able to be harmoniously developed because they were hindered by a poor understanding latent in this area. In accepting to live the inner experience in a more determined way through the body, we leave, therefore, a path that was clearly marked out for us by our traditional spiritual masters, and yet we also come to see that neither are we in a strange land. We find, on the contrary, that we are in the land from which we were exiled.

So much so that in welcoming this transformation in our spiritual life, we become capable of establishing an encounter with our Buddhist companions that is much more real. We are no longer meeting merely on the rational level but on the existential level as well and this approach is fundamental, especially for Buddhism. We do not renounce the necessary dogmatic precision. Exchange on the level of rational expressions of our faith remain indispensable and even constitutive of dialogue, but they are now situated in a more favorable context.

This first aspect of the meeting between Christians and Buddhists merits emphasis at the outset as it constitutes an opportunity that we should make more conscious.

2. An Experience of Poverty
Experiencing the body constitutes a necessary preliminary to enlarge the space for the encounter. We will now see that the experience of poverty which opens us to the Gospel, is equally the primary condition for entering into dialogue. All along the process of interreligious dialogue, we are invited to undergo a conversion in this area.

The first approach often comes about through a desire for enrichment. We have already seen how recourse to Eastern spiritual methods led to the diversification or reinforcement of ascetical or meditative practices. We have also delved into the treasures of the sacred texts and other expressions of universal religion to do honor to religious intuitions. At this stage, the meeting of various religions can be the occasion of mutual enrichment. This is altogether legitimate as these spiritual treasures of humanity form a patrimony common to all.

But as long as our meeting with others is limited to a search for profit, albeit spiritual, a true encounter is not possible, because it is not so much the person of the other believer that we encounter, but his/her riches, received as “things.” However, at this point if we consent to go further with our companions on the Buddhist way, we are gradually brought to a change of attitude. We realize that this meeting in depth brings about a real impoverishment. There are the various roads which converge towards this evangelical beatitude. In experiencing other religious traditions we discover other images and names for the Absolute. We see how the spirit is equally at work, and this discovery can help to liberate us from our possessiveness in this domain.

Here St. Francis of Assisi enlightens our path. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, sites the practice of the Poverello to treat sacred texts with great respect, even those from secular authors. A brother asked him one day why he so carefully collected the writings even of the pagans, where the Name of the Savior was not present. He answered: “My son, it is because we find in them the letters that spell out the glorious Name of Our Lord God. All that is good in these writings belongs neither to the pagans nor to anyone else, but to God alone, from whom we receive every good.”(7) A particular good does not belong to us. We do not possess the truth. Then we can “rejoice in the truth”(8) that we find in others and purify ourselves of an exaggerated attachment to our truths of the faith.

Another road that leads us to poverty is the caring way in which we receive the answers brought by believers of other religions. We see how Buddhists, for example, take into consideration the main questions posed by human existence: suffering and death, the desire or quest for the Absolute. Often they bring answers that are very different from ours but which, in any case, have allowed multitudes of believers to experience a marvelous spiritual development. Obviously, it is easy to declare unilaterally that these answers are not as good as our own, or are even illusory. But if we claim to enter into dialogue with an evangelical spirit, we cannot proceed in this way. When we fully respect other attempts and when we accept that other responses are equally valid, we implicitly recognize that our own responses are not the only ones. And this realization questions our belief that our convictions are always right, convictions sometimes perpetuated through their illusive character. But, stripped of this pretense the Christian mystery remains fully evident and equally incontestable as it appears in an even greater simplicity.

The meeting with Buddhism engages our faith in many other ways in a fundamental encounter. This is an experience that can be frightening, and should not be undertaken unless a person is very rooted in the Christian faith. It is a beneficial experience for the Christian community because it brings a renewal to the practice of faith. For certain ones it can be like a “night of faith” as many reasons for believing are lost, and all that remains is a fidelity that is vulnerable, precarious and naked, assured only by the fidelity of our God. But it is an occasion in which to cry out with St. John of the Cross: “May all be turned upside down, at the proper time, as long as you establish us in you, God our Savior.”(9)

And so, the practice of dialogue can lead one to an experience of deep poverty and conversely an experience of poverty leads to dialogue. It strips us of our false riches which keep us apart and it allows us to meet the depth of the other.

At the heart of Buddhism, there is precisely the experience of emptiness, an experience that always reminds Christians of the kenosis of Christ as St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Philippians.(10) Christ Jesus stripped himself to receive our humanity. In “emptying” himself in this way, the literal sense of the text, he did not become more insignificant, but to the contrary, he became more himself, the Savior. It was in stripping himself that he revealed himself. The same is true for all Christians. Also, as paradoxical as it might seem, it is in making a larger space for the other in order to fully receive him/her, that Christians are more able to find their own identity as witnesses of unconditional love.

This emptiness in ourselves in order to better receive the other is but one manifestation of the more essential emptiness which characterizes all religious experience, allowing a place for mystery. Each in their own way, Christians and Buddhists find themselves in this communal powerlessness before the mystery which goes beyond us all. To express it in an image, I would say that we find ourselves part and parcel of this mystery as if we were by a bottomless pit with an infinite diameter. It is He who draws us and at the same time, separates us from one another. Our common fascination unites us but it does not diminish the distance which separates us and keeps us free, each on his/her own road. To me it is this which characterizes, in essence, the Christian–Buddhist encounter. It explains both the proximity and the distance. It explains, most of all, the movement experienced by the dialoguers with regards to their own religion as they grow in detachment and depth. In any case, the deep love for poverty shared by both Christians and Buddhists allows us to hope for a rich encounter between the two religions.
1. The Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue was created in 1978 to promote exchanges between Christian monks and nuns with their Hindu and Buddhist counterparts.
2. See the excellent description of the Second Spiritual Exchange in: Benoit Billot, OSB, Journey to Zen Monasteries, Desclee de Brouwer, 1987.
3. This group is now called: the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
4. Par. 35 Documentation catholique, # 1880 (September 1984), p. 848.
5. Bulletin of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue # 73 (1990–XXV/1) p. 17.
6. One of the strongest examples is the book entitled: From the Banks of the Ganges to the Rivers of the Jordan, a collection of articles written by Hans Urs von Balthasar and others, Paris, St. Paul Editions, 1983. A severe critique of this book appeared in the Bulletin of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, Citta del Vaticano, 1984 (#55), p. 103-107.
7. Thomas de Celano, Vita Prima, # 82, in: St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and First Biographies, collected and presented by Fathers Th. Desbonnet and D. Vosseux, OFM, Paris, Franciscan Editions, 1981, p. 262.
8. 1 Corinthians 13:6.
9. Saint John of the Cross, Cautions and Spiritual Sentences, #33, in Vida y Obras de San Juan de la Cruz, Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores cristianos, 1960, p. 1128.
10. Philippians 2:7.


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Convento Santa Maria Draperis
Istiklal Caddesi n.215/1 - P.K. 243
34433 Beyoglu -Istanbul TURKEY
T. +90 (0)534 597 9744
Fax +90 (0)212 243 2791
email: dialogueunity@gmail.com