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.
Michael: 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. Its 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 dont 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. Hed mention books by D. T.
Suzuki. Our local library had books by him and I read them but
I didnt understand them at all. I knew that meditation
was important but how are you supposed to concentrate
on a single point if you dont 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
dont 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 hadnt 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 Vietnams 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. Thats
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. Hed be there for a year or two. I told
him Id 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, Ive
been trying like Joe to make sense of Buddhism in my own Christianity.
Im a Sulpician, from the Parish of St. Sulpicius, the
Sulps. I invite Mary Ann Gould.
Mary Ann Gould: Im 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. Ive 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 Jims
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. Its 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.
Im 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.