Los Angeles Buddhist Catholic Dialogue

Jan. 19, 2002

La Salle High School

Present: Dan Reinke, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Gordon Gibb, Lucy Palerimo, Mary Ann Gould, Sr. Thomas Bernard, Anita Merwin, Ralph Barnes, Ven. Samahito, Tim Langell, Brandon Paris, Ellen Slatkin, Carole Belnick, Michael Kerze.

Ven. Samahito reported that he has an interreligious dialogue going on in New Zealand where he opened a temple. Ven Karuna Dharma brought copies of Zen Buddhism and Nationalism in Vietnam, written by her late teacher, the Ven. Thich Thien-An, for background on our day’s topic. Michael brought copies of a short paper about the history of the Catholic Church and ant1-Semitism.

Michael Kerze: I believe it was in 1963 that the religious issues in South Vietnam came to a head. The Bishop of Hue, the brother in law of President Diem, celebrated Easter with a traditional parade where Catholics, a minority in Vietnam, carried their banners and symbols. But he did not allow Buddhists to parade for the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday shortly thereafter. Unrest spread, and the government then began to raid Buddhist temples and monasteries for hiding weapons for the Vietcong. In the summer, a Buddhist monk immolated himself, drawing world wide attention to the situation. As government suppression got worse, protests increased, and a few other monks and a nun immolated themselves in protest. The US gave the go ahead for a coup to topple Diem. It began on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, and on Nov. 2, Diem was assassinated. Premiere Ky was installed. About two weeks later JFK was assassinated in Dallas. There was a religious liturgical context for the war.

Ven. Karuna Dharma: Catholics constituted only about 10% of the population, Buddhists about 85%. Catholics were educated in France and constituted the elite. My teacher could not get higher education if he was not a Catholic. He went to Japan and got his D. Litt.from Waseda University, the premiere private iniversity, the first Buddhist in Vietnam to do so, and the first person to receive a doctoral degree in Japan in 20 years. He returned to Vietnam and co-founded Van Hanh University, a Buddhist university, which taught all subjects. He became a very important and influential person. The first monk who immolated himself did so in an intersection of Saigon, the Ven. Thich Quang-Duc. That monk came to Thien-An and told him what he was going to do. Thien-An told him he could not approve it but they both understood he said that so that when the government showed up, which it later did, he could truthfully deny he gave permission. Much more important was the monk who immolated himself in the courtyard of his temple. That was Ven. Thich Tieu-Dieu, the father of Thich Thien-An. He and his father had become monks at the same time. Thich Thien-An, flying low in a helicopter to avoid radar, arrived too late to take his father’s place. The government took the body because they did not want a public funeral ceremony; an uproar resulted. The government began arresting monks. They threw Thich Thien-An down the stairs – I heard the story from a monk who was hidden at the bottom of the stairs. After that he had back problems for the rest of his life. They jailed him. However, when it became clear who he was, he was released and confined to house arrest. When you have a country so downtrodden as Vietnam was, nationalism is the only way to empower the people. That happened in Sri Lanka too.

Sri Lanka today is in civil war. It was had a 450 year history of colonial occupation, Catholic under the Portuguese, Calvinism under the Dutch, and Anglican under the British. It was the Civil War veteran, Col.. Olcott, who revived Buddhism, by publicly taking refuge in the 3 Jewels. Because of his example, many Sri Lankans took heart and professed Buddhism again. Today, about 75% of Sri Lankans are Buddhists.

Dan Reinke:
He was criticized for making Buddhism more accessible, especially to “white” Buddhists who were coming over. But he did write the 12 points all Buddhists agree with.

Sr. Thomas Bernard:
With some exceptions, do you think the emphasis is not on religious differences but rather territorialism, colonialism, culturalism, politics?

Carole Belnick:
I have difficulty trying to compare Christian anti-Semitism with Buddhist nationalism. They are very different situations. Even looking at Buddhism as a world religion is a very recent thing.

Michael Kerze:
We need to educate each other the best we can about all these issues, asking different questions, seeing them in different ways. It’s a very different, very complex history with Christian and Jews than with other religions elsewhere and nationalistic issues. It may be helpful to us to understand the differences. We are spiritual, political, cultural beings.

Gordon Gibb: I think it was Thich Nhat Han who was asked would you rather have peace for your country or Buddhism free. He said, that is not even an issue. I would rather have my country be free. You can practice Buddhism even if the Buddha never lived; his teachings would be true. That’s different than in Christianity.

Michael Kerze: I was thinking of how historical contingencies structure the vision of reality that comes with the religion. Christianity began in violence, the violent death of Jesus. Buddha lived to a ripe old age. What would have happened if he met a violent end – would the tradition regard him the same way as now? Jesus had 3 years to manifest his vision, Buddha had 45 years to develop his legacy.

Dan Reinke: Would there have been an actual change – it was the teachings that came from the man rather than the man himself. He brought the teachings to light even if he came to a violent death.

Michael Kerze: Could you say the same thing about Christianity? That his execution, then, would have been incidental to his teaching.

Carole Belnick: Being with a teacher is important. Buddhists being with their teacher for 45 years and the disciples being with Jesus three years – that might make some kind of difference.

Ven. Karuna Dharma: Buddha was older than Jesus when he reached Enlightenment – about 35 and he lived so much longer. I think that Christian teaching was damaged by his early death for what it could have been. From a Buddhist view, his teachings would have been much richer if he lived to be an old man.

Michael Kerze:
In Islam, for example, the historical reality of the persecution of the Prophet and his amazing triumph, sets the stage for how Muslims experience their history for a thousand years. Occasional set backs were overcome. In Christianity, our model is crucifixion and resurrection. In Buddhism, don’t you have a process to Enlightenment? In Judaism you have oppression and exodus. You understand your own life this way. Does contingency get expressed transcendently? Don’t origins have consequences that end up expressed politically and socially. In Christianity, the three years of teaching meant that the later conflicts were about trying to figure out who Jesus was and what was he all about. Buddha got to answer those questions. In Christianity, its origins played out in its relations with Judaism.

Gordon Gibb: The construction of memory, of the past, to a Buddhist perspective is a projection of the “I”, of the need to exist. But because Buddha had more time, it doesn’t make his teaching more true. By its nature, truth is truth and when you make contact with any part of it, you contact all of it. Attempts were made on Buddha’s life by Devadatta, his cousin. He wanted to take over the family business. Buddha had attracted the people and got it going and Devadatta wanted to come in and stage a coup de etat. Buddha was injured in Devadatta’s attempts. Buddha didn’t see it as an act of violence but of ignorance.

Sr. Thomas Bernard:
Are we saying truth is static; that it does not evolve? In the first four centuries Christianity struggled with the meaning of Jesus but the struggle brought out clarity in Jesus’ teaching and a deeper understanding. Not everything has to be taught in 3 years or 45 years. I see a value in that Jesus had only three years for it made it possible to understand truth at different points in different times.

Carol Belnick:
The questions the founder originally brought are very important in a religion. Buddha’s question was suffering. What about Christianity?

Sr. Thomas Bernard: It was love.

Lucy Palermino: Who do you say I am?

Dan Reinke: Today it is: how do you present me to others?

The kids are in and out for classes, work. Sometimes we don't see each other for days ... because I sleep, sometimes I wonder about them. It's pretty good living. Isaac got through the crazy years your Michael is getting into and is a functioning adult, good tempered. Leila is still enough of a kid who will occasionally sulk when I tell her something she doesn't like to hear.