Los Angeles Buddhist Catholic Dialogue

April 23, 2002

Loyola Marymount University

Present: Al Albergate, Sr. Thomas Bernard, Fr. Alexei Smith, Anita Merwin, Mary Ann Gould, Cynthia Shimazu, Ven. Piyananda, Rhonda Jessum, Fr. Jim Fredericks, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Carole Belnek, Michael Kerze.

We agreed last time to share the story of our spiritual journey that ended up with us here, today, at this dialogue. A good process to make sure everyone has a chance to speak is the “mutual invitation process” which I was taught as an interreligious dialogue facilitator for the Interreligious Council of Southern California by the NCCJ. It’s very simple. When you are done speaking, ask if there are any questions. Then invite someone else to speak. That person, when they are finished, will invite another. Anyone. We don’t have to go in any order. Because I am a co-chair of this dialogue, if it is ok with the rest of you, I will go first.

I was “born and raised a Catholic” as the saying goes, but by high school was very interested in Buddhism. That came from reading Jack Kerouac. He’d mention books by D. T. Suzuki. Our local library had books by him and I read them but I didn’t understand them at all. I knew that meditation was important but how are you supposed to “concentrate on a single point” if you don’t have any idea what that really means? As soon as I was out of high school I became a devout pagan, an easy thing to do in the sixties. At UCLA I began studying the History of Religions and it gave me a vocabulary to talk about religion. I was especially fascinated with Hinduism and its emphasis on sacrifice as the foundation of the cosmos. At one point a TA I had, Pat North, said to me when I told her how I wanted to read someone like Shankara or Nagarjuna, “Why don’t you read Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. Christianity is a religion too.” It was like a light bulb going off in my head for up to that time I hadn’t even thought about Christianity in the way I had learned to think about religion. That began my re-entry into Catholicism. The first Mass I attended I did as I imagined a Hindu would, present at the sacrifice that was the foundation of the world. The Mass opened up to me in a way it never had before. Since that time the study of other religions has been the greatest resource for my practice of Catholicism. In 1989 because of a class I was teaching on religion and science (my specialty) at LMU I came to the notice of Fr. Donald Merrifield, the chancellor, who was creating an interreligious group to discuss religion and science along with Msgr. Royale Vadakin and Rabbi Alfred Wolf. That is how I met Msgr. Vadakin who was then head of the Ecumenical Office for the diocese. He liked what I had to say and got me involved in a number of interreligious projects. He asked me if I would like to join a Buddhist Catholic dialogue group he was forming. That was how I came to this dialogue. I eventually became co-chair around 1994 or 1995 with the Ven. Dr. Ratanasara who became a good friend and my mentor in Buddhism. I miss him dearly. I have been grateful to be a service to this dialogue over the years. It has been one of the great things in my life and a real grace. I invite Ven. Karuna Dharma.

Ven. Karuna Dharma:
I was born and raised a Northern Baptist; my dad was liberal. I came to Buddhism as a full adult. I met my mentor in 1969, Thich Tien-An. At the time I was getting a divorce, teaching school. I went back to school to get higher pay and saw a course, “Buddhism and Zen” offered in the summer at night. At the first class, he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and he taught us how to meditate. It clicked. Meditation changed my life — it helped to save my life. It was the Sixties and I was out there with my mini-skirt partying. In 1969 the Tet offensive just started. My teacher was going back to Vietnam. His students got him to sign immigration papers and in two years he got a green card. South Vietnam drafted him for publishing a letter objecting to South Vietnam’s mistreatment of people. In 1973 I came to him and said I wanted to take vows. In 1976 I was ordained and was fully ordained when he died in 1980. I became abbess at the International Buddhist Meditation Center. In that year I met Ven. Dr. Ratanasara. We began teaching courses together. He came from a very different background. Around that time Msgr. Vadakin met Ratanasara and asked him to join the Interreligious Council. Some years later he asked us to join the Buddhist Catholic Dialogue. It was very difficult to convince the congregation of South Asian Buddhists because of the colonial legacy of the Church there. We said yes because we thought it was a good way to increase understanding and we went to convince other Asians to join. The dialogue has been really wonderful. That’s how I came to this table. I invite Jim Fredericks.

Fr. Fredericks: I was raised a Catholic in northern California. I knew I wanted to be a priest when I was a sophomore in high school and went to a college level seminary. Halfway through the semester I called home and talked to my dad. He said his company wanted him to go to Japan as a liaison between the government and pork farmers. He’d be there for a year or two. I told him I’d go with him and arranged to go to the Jesuit University in Tokyo. We all fell in love with Japan. When I came back to the US I was assigned to the Latin District in San Francisco and learned Spanish. I went to Hawaii to teach theology, teaching Asian kids that it was ok to teach Asian ideas. I continued to further grad studies at the University of Chicago and met Joseph Kitagawa, a real turning point in my life. His family came from Japan. His father converted to Episcopalism and sent his son in September of 1941 to study for the priesthood at Berkeley — then he was arrested and put in the interment camps. I met him at the end of his distinguished career. He had been ordained an Episcopal priest and went to get his Ph.D. at Chicago where he studied with Joachim Wach. At that point he was trying to figure our his own Christian faith as a Japanese national. I had the sense he was the most misunderstood person at the university. A very complex and spiritual man, he was struggling with his religious and national identity. We read Buddhist texts one afternoon each week. Since then, I’ve been trying like Joe to make sense of Buddhism in my own Christianity. I’m a Sulpician, from the Parish of St. Sulpicius, the “Sulps.” I invite Mary Ann Gould.

Mary Ann Gould:
I’m struck by how important it is to have a mentor in early adulthood. I was raised Roman Catholic; my mother was a very spiritual woman. I was married the day before I turned 21, raised six kids. As they went to college, I realized they would be gone. I decided it was right for me to get an MA in psychology. I discovered myself, not a s a mother or wife but as me. I did a very powerful eight day silent retreat. Afterward I got a flyer for a Christian Meditation eight day retreat, a John Main seminar, seven years ago. I got into a meditation group at my church. I’ve been growing, trying to release commitments. I set time out each day for my prayer life and scripture reading. I got here through my daughter. I am part of the World Meditation Group headed by Fr. John Lawrence. He was using the “Good Heart” book by the Dalai Lama. Fr. Lawrence wrote the preface to it. My daughter took Jim’s class using the book so I got connected to LMU and through that, to here. I invite Ven. Piyananda.

Ven. Piyananda: I was born in Sri Lanka to a very traditional Buddhist family. I had very good Buddhist scholars, Bhante Ratanasara was one of them. He tried to liberate us. He had a Catholic priest as a friend which was very unusual. In colonial times they had forced conversion to Christianity by threat of death. But Fr. Tony Prinanda never tried to convert us but told us to use our knowledge. He had us talk at his university. On Oct. 26, 1955, I was ordained a monk and got a scholarship to study in India. I got my MA in Buddhism and Hinduism. On July 4, 1976, I came to the US, first in northern California. Then I came to the IBMC and afterwards went to Northwestern University. If I was going to live in the US I had to learn about Christianity. I lived with a Methodist minister, read the New Testament, discovered Jesus and his teaching of love. The ministers were wonderful, only the Korean minister tried to convert me to save me from hell. Dr. Thich Tien-An and Karuna invited me back to LA. In 1979 I started the first Sri Lankan temple in the US. Dr. Ratanasara stayed in the US to help work out problems at the temple. I attend UCLA and studied under Dr. Bolle and met Mike. I did Karl Barth and Buddhaghosa. Kees wrote a nice but strong letter saying I was to prejudiced and so I ended my studies there. Dr. Ratanasara asked me to join this dialogue with Fr. Vadakin. It’s been very wonderful with people like Michael and Jim. Because of this dialogue I was asked to give a talk on love which I made into a booklet. I got much encouragement for it. I’m very busy with the temple, the Dharma Vijiya Buddhist Vihara and I now head the Sangha Council of Southern California, but I love to come.