Buddhist-Catholic Retreat/Dialogue
- Serra Retreat, Malibu, October 1- 4, 1998

The Setting:
Serra Retreat rests above the Pacific Ocean on a hilltop in Malibu. With a gorgeous ocean view in front and the coastal mountain range behind, the retreat house provided an excellent setting for a retreat and dialogue between Buddhists and Catholics who came from across the United States to this spot on the Pacific Rim for an encounter between the spiritualities of the East and of the West.

Sponsors: Sponsors included: NADEO, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, Soka Gakkai International, Rissho Kosei-kai, and certain individuals in Los Angeles, Friends of Msgr. Royale Vadakin, Sr. Thomas Bernard, and Marisa Antonini.

Planning and Coordination: Dr. Michael Kerze, Co-chairman, the Los Angeles Buddhist- Catholic Dialogue, Fr. Butch Mazur, Cochairman, NADEO Faiths in the World Committee, and Dr. John Borelli, Interreligious Relations, NCCB, were in regular contact from the preparatory meeting of the Faiths in the World Committee in September 1997 until the opening of the conference on October 1, 1998. The Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue as a host devoted more than a year to planning the logistics of the retreat and the program for the dialogue. The Office of Ecumenical Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California provided resources, both financial and personnel, for the success of the gathering. Soka Gakkai International coordinated transportation arrangements to and from LAX. Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood provided the shrine constructed next to the altar in the chapel. The Buddhist members of the Los Angeles dialogue arranged for the Buddhist speakers.

Brief Summary: Fifty-seven Catholics and Buddhists attended the event. About a third of the participants were affiliated with the L. A. Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue. Among Buddhists there were: Theravadins (both Sri Lankan and Thai lineage's), Jodo Shin-shu (especially Buddhist Churches in America), members of a Vietnamese lineage of Zen, Chinese Buddhists, and members of certain new Buddhist movements (Soka Gakkai, Rissho Kosei-kai, and Shambala). NADEO members from Honolulu, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, and Oakland came with Buddhist partners. Other NADEO members attended from Buffalo, Newark, Lafayette, and Brooklyn.

Bishop Thomas Costello and the Ven. Dr. Ratanasara co-presided over a program of lectures, dialogues (both in groups and in dyads), meditation periods, and rituals. David Kalupahana spoke on "Dhamma: Buddha's Conception of the Moral," and Leo Lefebure spoke on "The Christian Experience of God." Bishop Costello gave an overview of Christian spirituality, and Heidi Singh spoke generally on Buddhist spirituality. Sr. Margaret Funk, O.S.B., (from Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and who facilitated a NADEO seminar at the Richmond NWCU) reviewed the spiritual ladder of John Cassian while A1 Albergate spoke on use of the Buddhist chant "nam myoho renge kyo." Joan Chatfield reviewed a plethora of projects Buddhists and Catholics have accomplished together in Hawaii while Alan Badiner focused on common feelings about violence. Also on hand was Donald Mitchell who has attended both of the Holy See's dialogues with Buddhists (1995 and 1998) and who helped engineer the "Gethsemani Encounter" in 1996. The L. A. dialogue shared the fruits of their nine-year history. NADEO members gained inspiration and experience for Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in an environment of study and recollection.

Background: During the 1996 Conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies at DePaul University, a working group on Buddhist-Catholic relations met over four days to review the past 30 years of dialogue and to discuss future possibilities. This was one week after the Gethsemani Encounter (July 22-7, 1996, which several NADEO members had attended). A sizable number participated in the four sessions at the DePaul Buddhist-Christian conference. These sessions focused on the involvement of the Holy See, various exchanges sponsored by monastics including the Gethsemani Encounter, relations in various U.S. dioceses, and cooperation between certain Buddhist and Catholic groups. NADEO's Faiths in the World Committee convened this working group, drawing upon the scholar members of the committee, Fr. Leo Lefebure and Professor Donald Mitchell. One notable recommendation from the working group was to hold meetings in retreat centers or similar environment so that designated times for spiritual practice would complement conversations on specific topics.

A few participants in the working group had attended meetings of the longest running Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in the U. S. on a diocesan level--the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue. This group began meeting in 1989 under the combined leadership of the Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara and Msgr. Royale Vadakin and had already published one report ('`Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue: An Early Journey," Origins 20, 44 [4/11/91]). A few weeks after the DePaul University conference, the L. A. dialogue invited the Faiths in the World Committee to consider a joint project to bring Catholics and Buddhists together, in the Los Angeles area, for some sort of extended dialogue. One goal of the project would be to provide an opportunity for members of the L. A. dialogue to share their experiences with interested persons living elsewhere in the United States.

Those members of the Faiths in the World Committee who had attended the Gethsemani Encounter (see: The Gethsemani Encounter, edited by Mitchell and Wiseman, Continuum, 1997) wanted to host something similar to initiate Buddhist-Catholic relations on a national level and to inspire other members of NADEO to initiate Buddhist-Catholic relations in their regions of the country. With sound advice from Professor Donald Mitchell and the capable assistance of Dr. Michael Kerze serving on the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Fr. Butch Mazur of the Diocese of Buffalo, a decision was made to hold a retreat/dialogue in early October 1998 for up to 60 persons, 30 Buddhists and 30 Catholics. Serra Retreat in Malibu was reserved from Thursday afternoon, October 1, to Sunday noon, October 4. Funding was provided from both Buddhist and Catholic sources with NADEO providing the seed money with a generous grant. Joint Buddhist-Catholic planning for the event took place at meetings of the L.A. Dialogue and the 1997 meeting of the Faiths in the World Committee.

Crucial to the Buddhist contributions to the dialogue was the unwavering support of the Ven. Dr. Ratanasara, senior monk in Los Angeles, president of the American Buddhist Congress, founder of the Buddhist Sangha Council and co-chair of the Los Angeles Buddhist Roman Catholic Dialogue. The Ven. Dr. Ratanasara has tirelessly promoted the benefits of dialogue with the Catholic Church to Buddhists across the United States and in Sri Lanka and Thailand. He was also one of the 23 of official participants in the Gethsemani Encounter. He was also one of the four official participants in the interreligious dialogue with Pope John Paul II during the papal visit to California in 1987. When the Los Angeles dialogue first began imagining a regional dialogue for Catholics and Buddhists, he led the Buddhists in support. Dr. Michael Kerze reported to the L. A. Dialogue that the Faiths in the World Committee of NADEO wanted to follow up the Gesthemani Encounter with a national dialogue event. The L. A. Dialogue agreed that joining with the Committee in planning would be the best way to guarantee success for the Los Angeles dialogue's hope to spread the good news about the benefits of Buddhist- Catholic relations.

The Conference: At the opening session, Ven. Ratanasara and Professor Mitchell spoke about the journey of dialogue that had brought all together for the weekend retreat. The schedule listed paired presentations on spirituality and life, spirituality and individual practice, concepts of Dharma and theology, and social engagement and models for cooperation. Speakers and facilitators included: Dr. Heidi Singh, Bishop Costello, Sr. Margaret Mary Funk, Al Albergate, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Dr. Kerze, Professor David Kalupahana, Fr. Leo Lefebure, Sr. Joan Chatfield, Alan Badiner, Kusala bhikshu, Fr. James Fredericks, and Dr. John Borelli. The Buddhist community in Los Angeles arranged for Buddhist speakers using the resources they had available. Rev. Heidi Singh, a Dharma teacher at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles and former Bud&sit chaplain at UCLA, addressed the retreatants about the scope of Buddhist practice. Al Albergate, national director of public relations for Soka Gakkai, spoke about Bud&sit spirituality. Dr. David Kalupahana presented on Buddhist doctrine and Alan Badiner, author of Dharma Gaia, briefly discussed an aspect of Buddhist social action. The Ven. Dr. Ratanasara gave the opening remarks about the importance of dialogue. The Buddhists recognized from the start that their resources were far more limited than the resources available to the national Catholic organizations and thus drew upon competent local speakers and one well-known scholar, Dr. Kalupahana.

Approximately one-third of the 57 participants were or had been affiliated with the Los Angeles dialogue. Among Buddhists at this retreat/dialogue were: Theravadins (affiliated with Sri Lankan and Thai lineage's), Jodo Shin-shu (particularly the Buddhist churches in the U.S.), members from the Vietnamese lineage of Zen, two Chinese Buddhists, and persons from "new Buddhist groups" (Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai). Bishop Thomas Costello of Syracuse co- presided with the Ven. Ratanasara, and a member of the staff of the National Council of Churches also attended. Catholics in attendance represented 12 dioceses, and Catholics and Buddhists attended as partners from eight of these. Participants were urged to come as partners, and the planners insured that each participant was paired in a Buddhist-Catholic dyad for certain periods of individual discussions.

Every participant received beforehand a packet of materials including bibliographies, joint statements and reports from dialogues, the volume resulting from the Gethsemani Encounter, and papers evaluating Buddhist-Catholic dialogues. Everyone received copies of all papers made available, other resources, and a list of all participants.

The liturgies were among the most powerful of all the elements of the retreat. These took place in the chapel whose main adornment is a view outside of the windows which constitute its walls, a view of a statue of Francis Assisi at the point of the hill with the Pacific Ocean beyond. In the chapel the gold leafed image of the Buddha seated in meditation topped three small tables placed on each other and was surrounded by sprays of fresh flowers. This was positioned against a wall and to the left of the bare altar over which hung the cross of San Damiano.

An opening service was held the first evening with prayers and chants from both traditions. A candle was lit in the chapel to burn throughout the conference. At various times throughout the retreat participants reverenced the image of Jesus on the crucifix and the image of Shakyamuni Buddha on the Buddhist altar. Early morning, meditation sessions were conducted in the chapel by Buddhist and Catholic guides. These were followed by liturgy. Catholic and Buddhist liturgy alternated in morning and evening, each day of the conference. In a closing ceremony, the lit candle was extinguished. The spiritual dimension of the conference provided context, nurture, and serenity to the proceedings. From a Catholic view, the Saturday vigil mass for the feast of St. Francis was profound in its symbolism. Buddhists also expressed appreciation for the symbolism. When the congregation linked hands for the Lord's prayer and then bowed or joined hands for the exchange of peace, Buddhists and Catholics alike felt a profound sense of friendship and closeness. Dr. Ratanasara, reflecting upon the deference in liturgy, said that the major respect shown by both groups was totally sincere. Dr. Kerze felt that an interreligious future which respected each tradition without compromising them was enacted liturgically.

One session was devoted to the L. A. Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue. Gifts were given to the dialogue founders: Ven. Ratanasara and Msgr. Vadakin. Dialogue took place in various ways. At one point, Buddhists and Catholics from different regions of the country met; at other times, an assigned dyad of one Bud&sit and one Catholic met. The whole group interacted in many ways including at meals, in plenary sessions, at receptions, and on one afternoon with a box lunch and visit to the Malibu beach.

Goals: The goals of the planners were successfully met. On the one hand, the Los Angeles dialogue shared its experience with a larger, sympathetic group as a resource for similar dialogues. On the other hand, NADEO members wanted to experience Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in an environment of study, recollection and prayer. In addition, 57 persons enjoyed one another's company following a retreat schedule for four days and learning more about Buddhist and Catholic beliefs and practices and how these traditions might be mutually enriching, and ways to improve relations. Buddhists from other parts of the country gained~information on the interreligious activities of Buddhists in Los Angeles. Finally, Buddhist and Catholic partners from various cities and towns returned home with a few ideas and experiences that might be helpful in promoting their own dialogues.

Evaluation: An evaluation form was prepared and mailed after the conference along with papers and other resources resulting from the conversations. Responses were about evenly divided between Christians and Buddhists. All evaluations were positive; the careful planning by the L. A. group, Faiths in the World, and the three coordinators paid off. For improvements, Buddhists suggested more ways to increase the fellowship and contact at such a dialogue and also urged that participants address the difficult matters and lessons from the history of contact and sensitive issues of the present. One Buddhist reported that already she and her Christian partner were busy planning activities. Some Christians were uncomfortable with certain questions raised by a Catholic facilitator especially regarding defining the relationship Buddhists have with the reality of the church and God's continuing work in the world through the church. Everyone liked the setting, the variations in the schedule, and the relaxed retreat environment. There were suggestions for more attention to detail, particularly the range of religious orientations among the participants and even the distinctiveness of the rituals and practices. Personal relationships and deep friendships are the most profound results of the ten years the Los Angeles dialogue has been meeting. Interreligious friendships have provided the enduring cohesion of the L. A. dialogue and the motivation to see new dialogues and relationships between the communities established in other parts of the United States. Over and above the educational dimension of the Malibu dialogue was the creation of dyads, Buddhist and Catholic partners, for the days in Malibu. One participant, a head priest of Higshi Honganji temple in Los Angeles, recommended that at the next national retreat, dyad partners be introduced at the very beginning so that they would have more time to know each other and their respective traditions through the personal relationships. A Catholic member of the L. A. Dialogue said the dyads were "a way to cheer about the new 'things' we were discovering about our partner's faith and experience of life." Another Catholic pointed out that the morning meditation session, guided by a meditation teacher from Wat Thai, created an atmosphere which carried over well into the breakfast which followed. The morning meditations were described as a gift exchange between the two traditions. Everyone agreed that the meditation on Sunday, the last day of the retreat, was almost magical. The Director of the Diocesan Center for Spirituality in Los Angeles had placed an icon of the Trinity upon the altar and instructed those present on how to meditate upon it. As the early morning coastal clouds cleared, the sun broke through and illuminated the icon. The sudden presence of the new morning light seemed to be a fitting symbol of the shared experience of the participants.

Michael Kerze, Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue John Borelli, Interreligious Relations, National Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bulletin of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue - Issue Number 61 * Winter 1999

Buddhist-Catholic Retreat/Dialogue - Malibu, California

A major dialogue conference between Buddhists and Catholics was held from October 1-4, 1998, at the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, California. Co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue and the Faiths in the World Committee of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers (NADEO), the conference had presentations by sixteen persons over the four-day period, including ones by four persons directly connected with MID: Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, our executive director; and three members of the Board of Advisors: Dr. John Borelli, Fr. Leo Lefebure, and Prof. Donald Mitchell.

Prof. Mitchell, together with Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara, led the opening session, Dr. Borelli joined with Ven. Karuna Dharma in conducting the closing session (which centered on the question "Where Do We Go from Here?"), and Sr. Mary Margaret gave a presentation on "Spirituality and Individual Practice" on the first full day of the conference. Other presentations dealt with such topics as "Spirituality and Life," "The Concepts of Dharma and Theology," and "Social Concerns and Models for Cooperation." The texts of only a few of the presentations were available as the present article was being written, but these few included Leo Lefebure's paper on "The Christian Experience of God." Because of that paper's intrinsic excellence and also because of Fr. Leo's connection with MID, we would like to summarize it for our readers:

Fr. Leo began by recalling that Christian faith did not arise from reasoned arguments about the universe but rather from encounters with Jesus, encounters that changed people forever as they were freed from fears, illness, and sins. The stories or parables that Jesus himself told helped elicit this change, for in them the hearers were confronted with a God who does not fit human calculations, does not appear at our command, does not act the way we expect God to act.

In the next part of his presentation, Fr. Leo drew on a well-known poem by the seventeenth-century English pastor George Herbert, "Love Bade Me Welcome." Reflecting on the poem line by line, Fr. Leo led up to the climactic final lines in which divine love insists on serving us, feeding us. God is like that, "extravagant generosity, beyond all reason or expectation." In the Christian liturgy, this generosity is met above all in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which configures us to Jesus and makes present his death and resurrection.

Toward the end of his paper, Fr. Leo's reflected on the way in which the experience of God takes shape in a Christian's life, namely, as faith, hope, and love. Of the three, hope is perhaps the most mysterious. Its ground is not an attitude of optimism but rather the resurrection of Jesus, not a resolve that "I can and I will" but rather the recognition that "I cannot do this on my own, Lord, but you will empower me to do this because you promised." He then concluded with a paragraph that deserves to be quoted in full, since it directly relates to the theme of interreligious dialogue:

"The worldviews of Buddhism and Christianity are in many ways very different, so different that it can be difficult even to understand each other at times. I know that often Buddhists find Christian language about God confusing. Yet the values of our traditions resonate strongly with each other. As a Christian, I have learned much from the Four Noble Truths and the Buddhist virtues of wisdom and compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In dialogue it is important to acknowledge both the differences in our perspectives and also the similarities in what we value. Then we can learn both from what distinguishes us and also from what unites us, so that together we may better serve this world.

OSB. MID. Bulletin 61, winter 1999. Index. / Rev. 990318 / © Copyright 1999 by MID / http://www.osb.org/mid/news/61/61b.htm