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.

Online 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 properly.

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


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

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.

http://www.pbs.org/news hour/bb/education/jan-june00/religion_4-21.html

___ ___ ___

Ven. Man Yee:
welcome the dialogue to Hsi Lai Temple.

Anita Merwin: I wouldn’t have a problem with Rev. Kusala teaching something on meditation in my class room. It’s non-dogmatic.

Rev. Kusala: The type of meditation I taught was unspiritual and secular: breathing to relax and concentrating your mind.

Fr. Fredericks: I thought he was making a distinction between the academic teaching about religion and the practice of religion. He wouldn’t 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 shouldn’t meditate, that’s doing religion rather than teaching religion. And what do you mean by secular? Is there anything that is not Buddhist?

Ven. Man Yee: Secular is for the public. People learn meditation to develop mindfulness but subconsciously they don’t accept Buddhism.

Gordon Gibb: There’s 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 one’s immune response.

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. There’s 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 can’t teach values without involving religion. Let’s think: what if there’s a Muslim student in the class who later tells his imam and the imam says that you shouldn’t do that. That’s paganism! Is there anything equivalent to this “secular” practice you’re describing in Catholicism?

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. I’m not trying to convert anyone. I accept invitations because through understanding comes acceptance. All the Buddhists I know, don’t want to leave Southern California, it's a great place to live. So what’s the best way for us to live together? To educate each other about differences and similarities, to build unity out of diversity? That’s what this class does.

Fr. Fredericks: The Catholic Church thinks it’s important that people know about Buddhism. I’m 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 conversation.

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 can’t interfere with religion but doesn’t say religion can’t interfere with government.

Rev. Kusala: But should religion interfere? Didn’t 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 don’t see it ending suffering. Lay people need to get involved, but Buddhist clergy? I don’t think so.

Anita: I’ve read through the Supreme Court judge’s 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. I’m not comfortable with teachers having students read Nativity stories from the Bible at Christmas time.

Rev. Kusala: And you don’t 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 wouldn’t choose, for example, Martin Luther’s perspective. I’d 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! Let’s read this Buddhist text and ask how does it relate to other texts in Buddhism? What’s the context? There’s always limitations. If you treat a Nativity story in a public school as a text, that’s one thing, but as a sacred narrative, that’s 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 Precepts–if 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. I’ve seen the damage that can happen by taking sides, those who have taken risks and those who did not take sides. I’ve 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 wouldn’t have if there hadn’t been someone who’d 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: There’s politics and there’s politics. Ven. Dr. Ratanasara, though politically active, was not political from a political viewpoint. Some say Buddhists shouldn’t even vote. That’s a complete misunderstanding of the sutras. We should vote! If bringing people together for peace is political, then I’m very political! But I don’t act politically.

Fr. Fredericks: I won’t run for office because I’m 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 he’s the elected president of Haiti. The Church told him not to run but he won. There’s an attempted coup d’etat. He rallies the troops. He’s telling folks to rise up and kill others. This is samsara. Gandhi would’ve 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: I’m from a Jesuit education. Priests and religious people shouldn’t hold office, but there’s 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. That’s religious action that’s 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 there’s people from Thailand being exploited as slave labor. Cardinal Mahony would say, there’s Catholic people in the union and I’m 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 don’t 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 don’t leave. No Buddhist monk left except one, well known in the U.S., who feared for his life. That’s 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.