Los Angeles Buddhist- Catholic Dialogue

January 26, 2000

Loyola Marymount University


Present: Rev. Kusala, Fr. Jim Fredericks, Ralph Barnes, Sr. Thomas Bernard, Fr. Will Connor, Anita Merwin, Gordon Gibb, Michael Kerze, and LMU students and faculty: Dr. Matt Dillion, Dr. Chris Chapple, Ron Stark, Erin Mylein, John Rickle, Robert Sanchez, Kristin Firestone, Alex Sachwer, Wu Tai, Nicole Richards, James Raycroft, David, Meninelle Sak, Patricia Richards, Nick Pinto, Lynn Anthony, Paul Freisin, Isaac Kerze, Leila Kerze.

Fr. Fredericks: Our topic, "I seem to be a verb," refers to the ideas of the "true self" in Buddhism and "soul" Christianity. Where Buddhists differ from the Christian idea, I have something to learn. Our society is dehumanizing in some ways. Christianity needs to stand up for human dignity and social justice. "Soul" has been developing in the Christian understanding for two thousand years. In the best of Catholic understanding, one should not see people from limited perspectives, for example, in genetics, which allows us to modify and label ourselves. Ethical problems arise from this, for example, the insurance implications for genetic typing of predisposition to diseases. Global capitalism will speak of specific actual human beings as "cheap labor" but they aren't, they are human beings. There is a book about the history of the Hansen disease colony in Hawaii. In it is a story with a photograph of a boy in a suit. He tells the story of how his father took him home rather than to the receiving station when he was diagnosed with leprosy &endash; Hansen's disease. His family wept but his father went out and bought him a suit so the boy would look good when he was declared a leper. That was when his photo was taken. His father cried then. "That was how I became a leper," the boy concludes.

The boy was "declared" a leper. Christianity should protest when we are declared a "leper," "cheap labor," a "homemaker." We establish the God given beauty of every human being in Christianity through declaring the soul. There are several meanings to this.

First, the body is not a machine and the soul is not a ghost in it, nor is it a separate object. The soul entails the whole of human reality. Second, the soul is a way of talking to affirm the value of each and every human being. Third, the soul and God are intricately related. God as Mystery is infinite and unbounded and we have been created in its image and likeness. Our "ensouledness" is the presence of that mystery in the world so we are sacraments to each other. Fourth, when we talk of soul we are talking of transcendence, an activity or process of myself being radically transformed in an act of transcendence &endash; leaving behind a limited understanding for a whole realm of freedom empowered by love. At the heart of transcendence is this freedom empowered by love. Fifth, our soul can be sick and sickness of soul can be healed by grace. The soul becomes sick when we refuse to love and only by stepping outside the self can we love.

Rev. Kusala: When I listen to this I applaud the complexity of the Christian idea of soul. But it is important to point out that Buddha knew nothing about that idea. In India, 500 years before Christ, the Buddha never met a Jew. There was no idea of the soul as Christians understand it. What Buddha said about soul was that it did not exist in the way the Brahmans said it exists. There is nothing independent that exists. Its simply a process. The Buddha taught anatta, "no self," criticizing the Brahmanical "atman." The point in Buddhism is why am I suffering and how do I end it, and the concept of soul has nothing to do with that.

Compassion is very important in Buddhism. That and wisdom are the two wings of the bird of Buddhism. The way we achieve compassion is through understanding the interconnectedness of all phenomena. In fact, there is nothing independent that exists so there is nothing that separates us. We are all in process together and once we understand that, there is only one response to the world and that is compassion. Emptiness is central here. Early Buddhists said we are empty of soul. Later Buddhists said everything is empty. Emptiness means empty of independent existence; everything arises because of conditions. If that is the ultimate reality, then we too are connected to each other in a special way, as well as to trees, buildings, and political figures. If we are all connected, and you are in deep meditation and tranquility and you have the direct experience of emptiness which would be selflessness and the interconnectedness, then the great compassion arises. This connectedness can only lead to compassion.

Michael Kerze: Realizing that you are interconnected to every human being, to trees, stones, buildings, is there any difference in the way you are interconnected? Is there any difference in your responsibility to a human being and to a tree?

Rev. Kusala: Even though we are all interconnected, it seems to me from a very practical standpoint that we can't respond to everything. We have to make choices. I choose to go to juvenile hall for five years to teach Buddhism and meditation; I did not choose to save the trees nor change the political system. But there are plenty of Buddhists who made that choice. I believe that it is exactly the same thing that connects to the trees and to human beings. At the ultimate level everything has exactly the same value which can be no value or very valuable, depending on what side of the coin you look at. Nagarjuna would say that is not the ultimate reality because one side of the coin says everything is valuable and the other says it has no value. The Buddhists would say that the important thing is the coin, not what side you look at. Zen Buddhists might say that everything has the potential for enlightenment. But I think that because enlightenment entails being able to live ethically, to be generous, that is why a dog in its present state could not yet attain it.

Gordon Gibb: In the Mahayana tradition, there is the discussion of the difference between sentient being and non-sentient being, and the conclusion is that there is no way to discern between them. All beings have the capacity in their present state to awaken. The majority view may be that only when you embrace the human life can you attain it. It raises the question of how you create suffering. It arises out of objectivity, the need to create separation by identifying ourselves with what we are not. Therefore, there is no separation between dog and Kusala. It makes me question myself, when I talk about separation, about defining myself by what I am not, what seed of suffering, what seed of violence, am I fomenting?

Rev. Kusala: I wonder about a category error for there is the relative sense and the absolute sense. In the relative sense as we sit here and speak, we have these reference points and we are separate. We have to be separate. If I am driving my motorcycle 70 miles an hour, I have to be separate from the car next to me. In the ultimate sense, everything is exactly the same. The problem is to take one sense or the other and determine it as ultimate.

Fr. Fredericks: When we Christians talk about soul we can get pretty abstract and float away. But the perfectly ordinary events have immense significance religiously for a Christian. Like the story of my little sister giving up her bicycle. It meant letting go of one part of her life to be freed up for another part. Does that have any meaning to you as a Buddhist?

Gordon Gibb: What you are alluding to is the practice of non-attachment which is different than being disengaged. On the contrary, it allows one to be more engaged, more present.

Dr. Matt Dillon: It's a wonderful story. One sees in it the Christian ideal of selflessness. His sister was acting in a selfless manner and that is something that can be shared with Buddhism. I grew up strictly Catholic and thinking Christianity was an otherworldly religion. When fixating on the eternal soul as an ideal unique individuality there is a vast difference with Buddhism, for even selflessness gets transported to this unique individuality rather than to a process of life and death and life which takes eons to work out.

Gordon Gibb: Jim you introduced the nature of the soul as an activity. It reflects the unboundedness of its origin in God. My question is: if it is reflecting the unboundedness of its origin, is there a limit to it. It is your soul. I am wondering if we are catching ourselves needing to affirm the value of each human life. If it is unbounded but limited to an individual, what is between us? What is it we discover, wake up to, when we love each other as ourselves?

Fr. Fredericks: The Christian understanding of soul is intimately connected to the Christian understanding of God. If you have an inadequate understanding of the soul, you have an inadequate understanding of God. More importantly, if you have an inadequate practice of being a soulful person, you will have an inadequate practice of being a person in the presence of God. Saying that the soul is the image and likeness of God in us in a very concrete Christian spirituality, I would say that as we are absolutely and unbounded in our capacity to be who we are through acts of renunciation of our false selfhood, our true self realization is opening up to, waking up to the mystery of God. The most famous Catholic theologian of this century, Karl Rahner, says that God must be in the end incomprehensible because our capacity for intimacy through love is unbounded, infinite. If God is finite, then the human capacity to be connected in intimacy, in love, will grasp God and spill out beyond it. We will be cursed then because we will have an infinite hunger that can never be satisfied. The good news is that my infinite capacity to be this goodness God created me to be is infinitely fulfilled by the infinitely loving, infinitely lovable God. If I really do believe God is this mystery, then I have to affirm something about myself. All the limited views of myself, all the suffering I create for myself and for others, when I act that way &endash; all the suffering that comes into the world through greed, racial prejudice, lust, through my clinging to a preliminary and ultimately false sense of myself &endash; in letting go of that I open myself more and more to self realization through God. God ultimately is not an object, not even an individual. For Christians, God is a community. God is relational. In terms of the Buddhist understanding of how everything is infinitely connected to everything else, I am not saying it is the same thing, but at least when I open up myself to the community that is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more I realize myself, the more I have the sense that you and I are part of a community. You are you and I am I but we are not entirely separated.

Sr. Thomas Bernard: The mandate, "Be perfect," is part of the leap into freedom, coming to know who we really are, to be the best human person we can be. The call to perfection means the value of who I am so I can value other people. We cannot come to love another unless we value ourselves trying to be perfect, the very best person, we can be. When I was in Amsterdam and got off the train, I walked through the brothel area. I felt a great sense of love for those women. They seemed to me to be very kind in themselves. It was a way of sensing their goodness.

Gordon Gibb: The word for being perfect in Greek, has to do with being whole. There is the sense of telos. With that there would be a cyclical understanding, a beginning, an end, a whole, to be integrated, and that is a very important aspect of Buddhism. When we are "being" perfect, we are not rejecting anything. Not giving it value but seeing its intrinsic value, not cutting it into parts that are acceptable and unacceptable.

Sr. Thomas Bernard: This is a very real recognition of and practice of love.

Tina: In Amsterdam the woman are allowed to do what they choose to do or need to do, unlike in the US. In other places they are looked down upon. There they are given more freedom to be natural. My Catholic understanding of the desire to be perfect is that only God can be perfect. If we are aspiring to perfection are we not aspiring to be God or godlike, and is that wrong?

Sr. Thomas: The full text is: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." You are right and it is not wrong.

Fr. Connor: There is a translation that reads: Be as compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.

Gordon Gibb: Isn't the line in Titus that reads: "For the eye that is pure, everything is pure." That is very Buddhist. The process is that of profound acceptance. I enter into you fully. Human life is "inconceivable" because it has no single origin. The practice is the opportunity to know.

John: Is the evolution of selfhood in Christianity, self transcending self, the same as selflessness in Buddhism? I see some kind of harmony here. The biggest thing creating conflicts is our pride. The harmony is in the room here. But who is willing to get shot for this &endash; for there is so much suffering in the world! There needs to be a voice of reason in the world.

Michael Kerze: I think for our dialogue, we have to begin where we are. For us, we are here in Los Angeles with each other. If we can make this work, we take this back to our communities and try to make it work there, and try to build a common bridge of understanding or a basis of cooperation for our communities here in Los Angeles, occasionally for the nation, and we dream about the world. But we have to begin where we are. And that is here.