Los Angeles Buddhist Catholic Dialogue
April 24, 2000
Hsi Lai Temple
Present: Gordon Gibb, Ven. Man Yee, Ven. Sumana, Ven. Karuna
Dharma, Rev. Kusala, Fr. Jim Fredericks, Anita Merwin, Ralph
Barnes, Peter, a student from LMU.
Rev. Kusala appeared on a PBS program about teaching religion
in public schools. The program included tape of Rev. Kusala
teaching a high school class about Buddhism and then leading
them in a meditation exercise. The dialogue watched a video
of the program and dialogued on issues discussed in these
excerpts of the broadcast.
News Hour: Teaching Religion- April 21, 2000
BETTY ANN BOWSER: First Amendment expert Haynes says religious
texts can be taught
objectively and fairly.
CHARLES HAYNES: It can come up when you're teaching world
history or when you're
teaching American History and the role the Bible has played,
and certainly that's one way it
naturally comes up. Other scriptures might come up as well.
When you're studying India, you're
going to study some of the Hindu texts and so forth. The other
way is to have an elective in
religious studies. A Bible elective is fully... Is permissible
and may be constitutional if it's done
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jim Maechling has been teaching elective
classes in comparative
religion at Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes for 30 years.
The kids like the give and take of
the class and the ability to speak freely about their views
on religion. ... Maechling thinks he's teaching along tried
and true constitutional lines.
JIM MAECHLING: It's a school; it's not a church. I don't preach,
but I really try to teach values.
And to me, any society without values is in big trouble, and
I think many religions are saying the
same thing, but the point is, yes, bring religion into the
schools, but let them all in. Either that or
we've got... Or let's keep what we've got, and is everybody
real happy with that? I don't think so.
I think people want to talk about important issues.
MONK (Rev. Kusala): I'll ring the bell three times to start.
And then I'll ring the bell three times to end, okay?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lindsay says one of the highlights of Maechling's
class is the
appearance of guest speakers who teach the kids about various
religious practices and, here,
meditation. First Amendment Center Director Haynes says the
meditation class shows how even
experienced teachers need guidance on how to teach religion
CHARLES HAYNES: I think that's inappropriate. We wouldn't
want the students to role-play the mass, something close to
home for many Americans, or to role-play any number of sacred
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Communion?
CHARLES HAYNES: Or communion. These things are sacred to people.
Just so, even if a
Buddhist monk says its all right, it's still a sacred activity,
and it involves kids in a religion not their own, and it risks
violating their religious liberty rights. It also risks trivializing
the faith that's being discussed.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Maechling disagrees. He says teaching yoga
and meditation are secular
JIM MAECHLING: This project is not a religion project. It's
not even a religious liberty project.
At core, as I think you've heard, it's a civics project.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Haynes says he hopes the first amendment
center will be able to
expand its training seminars around the country and clarify
what is and is not appropriate to teach.
___ ___ ___
Man Yee: welcome the dialogue to Hsi Lai Temple.
Anita Merwin: I wouldnt have a problem with Rev. Kusala
teaching something on meditation in my class room. Its
Rev. Kusala: The type of meditation I taught was unspiritual
and secular: breathing to relax and concentrating your
Fr. Fredericks: I thought he was making a distinction between
the academic teaching about religion and the practice of
religion. He wouldnt find it appropriate for kids in a school
to play act the Mass and he took that principle and applied
it to Buddhism, that you shouldnt meditate, thats
doing religion rather than teaching religion. And what
do you mean by secular? Is there anything that is not
Ven. Man Yee: Secular is for the public. People learn
meditation to develop mindfulness but subconsciously they
Gordon Gibb: Theres the perception of you that you are
coming as a Buddhist religious figure. Buddhism can be practiced
as a way of life or a philosophy that is not associated with
a religious practice. At that level, one could talk about
how this way of breathing is a universal way of calming the
body, keeping the mind from wandering, increasing the sense
of wellness, and, by extension, help ones immune
Fr. Fredericks: But in the video he addresses the fear
of the trivialization of Buddhism and religion.
Rev. Kusala: When I teach, I teach what Buddhism is for
me, but not how to do it. If you want to do it, you should
go to a temple or a monastery. Theres many forms
of meditation: insight, concentration, etc. To say all
meditation is Buddhist or all is spiritual is inaccurate.
Fr. Fredericks: We have a weird custom in the United
States of thinking we can separate religion from the
state and that you cant teach values without involving religion. Lets
think: what if theres a Muslim student in the class
who later tells his imam and the imam says that you shouldnt
do that. Thats paganism! Is there anything equivalent
to this secular practice youre describing
Peter: You could do a concentration exercise or a spiritual
exercise, or read a story and focus on it.
Rev. Kusala: This is an elective class; it would be different
if they had to take it. Im not trying to convert anyone.
I accept invitations because through understanding comes acceptance.
All the Buddhists I know, dont want to leave Southern
California, it's a great place to live. So whats the
best way for us to live together? To educate each other about
differences and similarities, to build unity out of diversity?
Thats what this class does.
Fr. Fredericks: The Catholic Church thinks its important
that people know about Buddhism. Im uneasy with
the claim that meditation can be done in a secular fashion,
and the distinction between philosophy and religion which
Americans love to make.
Fr. Fredericks: What if you have a Chinese American child
whose family is here at Hsi Lai. The child goes to a public
school classroom and the Korean Christians who were demonstrating
outside were invited to speak?
Rev. Kusala: It seems to me the best way to protect a child
is to educate them. And when they grow up they can decide
what they want to be.
Gordon: How can we overcome ignorance without knowing who
our neighbors are and the whys of why they practice and
the way they practice? It concerns, me my daughter is the
only Buddhist in her school.
Ven. Karuna: Both my kids were Buddhists and their teachers
supported them but I told them not to initiate a religious
Gordon: Why do we have to be the tolerant ones and they
have to be the ones who are right? They have asked her
to present Buddhism when it comes to the chapter on it
in their textbook; after it the teacher made inappropriate
comments about the superiority of Christianity.
Anita Merwin: The First Amendment says that government
interfere with religion but doesnt say religion cant
interfere with government.
Rev. Kusala: But should religion interfere? Didnt the
pope ask a Catholic priest who was a US senator to step down?
I don't see how you can wear two hats. I was invited to go
to Orange County for a discussion on whether religion should
be taught in the schools. Ven. Chon Thanh (Garden Grove, CA)
asked if I would say a few words because his English isn't
very good. I declined. Religion for me, is all about the end
of suffering. Politics can reduce suffering, but I dont
see it ending suffering. Lay people need to get involved,
but Buddhist clergy? I dont think so.
Anita: Ive read through the Supreme Court judges
opinions on issues of religion and in every instance they
want religion taught in schools, not practiced but taught.
The current State of California social science curriculum
requires teaching about religions. Im not comfortable
with teachers having students read Nativity stories from
the Bible at Christmas time.
Rev. Kusala: And you dont have to read Buddhist sutras
to teach Buddhism. I try and teach Buddhism in a non-sectarian
way. By teaching what the Buddha said and did in a historical
way, not so much what the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana,
say he did in a religious way. And if I were to give a class
on Christianity I wouldnt choose, for example, Martin
Luthers perspective. Id probably talk about
Christ, and what he had to say about the human condition.
Fr. Fredericks: As an academic I say to myself, these
are texts! Lets read this Buddhist text and ask how does
it relate to other texts in Buddhism? Whats the context?
Theres always limitations. If you treat a Nativity story
in a public school as a text, thats one thing, but as
a sacred narrative, thats another. The texts are
important. For example, look at the Sermon on the Mount
and a Buddhist commentary on the Precepts.
Gordon Gibb: The Sermon on the Mount and the Preceptsif
we were to examine the sociological impact of these if practiced,
what would a society look like practicing one or another?
Is this religious practice or religious study? When I practiced
the Christian tradition, I was taught that there was no place
not to be incarnated, not to practice. Now as a lay person,
I am uncomfortable with the position that someone who represents
a tradition should not be in a politically charged place.
Ive seen the damage that can happen by taking sides,
those who have taken risks and those who did not take sides.
Ive seen individuals who looked at issues and how they
affect the human condition and the confidence of people to
act according to their faith when they wouldnt have
if there hadnt been someone whod been a model
of being present in a difficult place. But are the lines
blurring here between sacred and secular? May it not
be necessary not to choose sides politically but yet
act in the public sphere?
Rev. Kusala: Because Buddhist monks and nuns have chosen
not to have a mainstream life style, they have the advantage
of detachment. The monastic tradition calls for separation.
The issues will be there, and samsara will always be unsatisfactory.
If we take the robes and put them in the Senate and Congress,
it will only confuse the issues.
Ven. Karuna: Theres politics and theres politics.
Ven. Dr. Ratanasara, though politically active, was not political
from a political viewpoint. Some say Buddhists shouldnt
even vote. Thats a complete misunderstanding of the
sutras. We should vote! If bringing people together for peace
is political, then Im very political! But I dont
Fr. Fredericks: I wont run for office because Im
a priest. I have a potential conflict of interest; I have
to represent my constituents and I have to represent the Catholic
Church. Look at Haiti. Aristide is a Catholic priest. He was
very crucial to the undoing of the dictatorship of Baby Doc
Duvalier. Now hes the elected president of Haiti. The
Church told him not to run but he won. Theres an attempted
coup detat. He rallies the troops. Hes telling
folks to rise up and kill others. This is samsara. Gandhi
wouldve been made king but he wisely said, no thanks.
He was not clergy.
Gordon Gibb: Gandhi was very political in what he was doing.
My question is: where is our part in situations where the
human condition is debased? Where do we as religious people,
lay and professional, play a role?
Peter: Im from a Jesuit education. Priests and religious
people shouldnt hold office, but theres an important
role in voluntary political organizations as long as they
grown out of the practice of their faith. For example, the
Jesuits in El Salvador were leading people to work for justice,
not violence. Thats religious action thats
not political but at the same time has a political effect.
They were killed.
Fr. Fredericks: Cardinal Mahony got his picture taken
on the front page of the LA Times in solidarity with
janitors on strike. The Catholic Church took a partisan
political stand, but it was working for what is just
according to the gospel call to support the weak and
exploited. I hear theres
people from Thailand being exploited as slave labor. Cardinal
Mahony would say, theres Catholic people in the union
and Im going to stand with them. It makes sense, given
the gospel. But what is the relation of the Sangha, the Thai
Sangha to the Thai people in California who are being exploited?
I dont think Christianity and Buddhism work the
same way on this.
Ven Karuna: This is a political decision. In 1975, when
people fled Vietnam, the supreme Patriarch said dont leave.
No Buddhist monk left except one, well known in the U.S.,
who feared for his life. Thats a political statement.
Gordon Gibb: How close do we get to suffering, to the incarnation?
If we stay with the option for the poor we miss out on
another dimension. The poor are poor because the rich are
also suffering. How are we adding to the suffering by choosing
one side? But the Buddha said: the greatest cause of economic
suffering, is economic poverty.
The topic of the next dialogue will be: What is the relation
of the Thai Sangha to the Thai community in Southern California
who are being exploited.