Angeles Buddhist- Catholic Dialogue
May 30, 2001
Present: Sr. Thomas Bernard, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Gordon Gibb,
Ralph Barnes, Ven. Sumana, Anita Merwin, Fr. Will Connor,
Al Albergate, Fr. Alexei Smith, Jenny Bengar, Claudia, Christie,
Dr. Michael Kerze.
We began the dialogue by reading Ven. Karuna Dharmas
paper on sunyata.
Ven. Karuna Dharma: The Heart Sutra teaches that form is emptiness
and emptiness is form. If you put anicca and anatman together
you get sunyata. Everything is constantly changing so there
is no permanent essence to anything. That is the basis of
sunyata. From a phenomenological level we can see this. On
earth Newtonian physics apply but out in space, quantum physics
does. But both those physics are true in their different spheres.
We know this table here exists but also we know it is primarily
space. From a Buddhist point of view, this table is thoroughly
empty. How did this table come into existence? Not just from
the wood and the craftsman, but from the thousands of people
who came before that. All that went into the making of this
table. We cannot separate ourselves from each other for, on
one level, we are all the same person, we are all interdependent
upon each other.
Sr. Thomas Bernard: As I was reading this it seemed to me
that emptiness was relative, there is never an absolute emptiness.
Are we ok with this?
Gordon Gibb: It would be relative if form was not emptiness.
But form and emptiness are, with each other. If we
say the form is relative or the emptiness is relative, we
see change. Yet the quality of that change is that emptiness
doesnt exist with out form.
Sr. Thomas Bernard: In philosophy we talk
about the Absolute and the conditional. Everything in the
world is conditional. Everything in relation to God must
take these two into consideration, but our relationship to
the Holy Spirit is always there. The
Lord be with you, we say in liturgy, and with
your spirit. When we die that spirit is with us. I
see all kinks of forms of emptiness as the classic spiritual
writers attest, yet there is no emptiness at all for we see
God as pure essence.
Dr. Michael Kerze: In the tradition of apophatic
theology, God is beyond essence. It recognizes that these
words we us are conditional based on the fact that words
are based on our experience. Everything we experience is
created and contingent so there is a limit to how effective
words are as applied to that which is unconditional and uncreated.
Even to call it unconditional and uncreated is to try to put
it into terms of reference based on our experience as created
contingent beings. In terms of the use of language, we run
into similar problems Buddhist do with sunyata, nama, and
rupa. Didnt Nagarjuna make a point that we are limited
in our capacities about what we can speak so there are two
levels of truth or two levels in our use of language? There
is the conventional use to point at things and there is the
language underneath language. If we talk about God as superessence,
yes, but thats not sufficient. Its a trap to
talk about God as ultimate essence. Apophatic theology says:
God is not ..., God is not ..., nor is God the opposite either.
Sr. Thomas Bernard: Its trying to
put God in our finite language. Some Greek fathers, I believe,
though Jesus had to be in some sense deformed because his
human nature was unable to bear his divine nature. In a sense,
when we try to understand God we try to put him into what
Dr. Kerze: What Christians so beautifully
doesnt mean you dont have to explain it. Its
the Greek word applied to sacrament. To call the Trinity mystery
is to point to its sacramental nature and to call Incarnation
mystery is to point to its sacramental nature. Our spiritual
lives come through participation in this. The Greek mysteries,
from which the word came, were processes, rituals, in which
there was a participation in the living, the dying, and the
rebirth of deities. The participatory sense of mystery is
essential, I think, for its to easily intellectualized.
The mystery, in the end, is us. That weve participated
in divine life, that weve been transformed, that weve
Fr. Alexei Smith: Both sister and Michael
emphasize the Greek and apophatic approach to theology, the
importance of not defining God away, leaving aspects of God
as mystery and an aspect is its a transforming process. Its not
something that happens and youre over it. Many believe
that in heaven you continue to grow into that likeness of
God. Our spiritual journey goes on in a continual process
Sr. Thomas Bernard: John of the Cross spoke
of encountering God in nothingness, in silence. Silence ... no sound.
It is necessary for the contemplative life to be open to what
God would and will do. In a room where people are moving into
contemplative prayer, theres a different level of silence.
Its qualitatively different, almost tangible. The experience
of silence prepares one for tragedy and to find peace in
it. Like the ocean, under the stormy surface, there is stillness.
Al Albergate: Sunyata, in Ven. Karunas paper, has great
social implications. Its the basis of non-violence,
compassion, our interdependence. It was important for Ghandi
and today the environmental movement. If we are all connected,
how do we act?
Gordon Gibb: This is the foundation. We
dont need a
separate savior to redeem ourselves for the mind that needs
to be liberated and the mind that liberates are the same.
To live non-oppositionally to the self, to offer no resistance
to help and liberate ourselves.
Sr. Thomas Bernard: Is non-violence connected
to detachment as Karunas paper suggests? Possession
of things can be a cause of violence with others and with
ourselves. We clutch at what we possess and it destroys it
Gordon Gibb: In Mahayana Buddhism, the nature
of the Pure Land is that Buddha liberates not by saving others
but by changing their conditions. All beings are awakened
though they dont know it. The Bodhisattva generates a Buddha
field in which conditions are such that beings may discover
the enlightenment they already have. Theres a similar
parallel with Christianity. Jesus influences and reveals the
Kingdom of God through his activities and observations, he
creates a field of influence in which to save beings. In the
epistle Titus it states that when the mind is pure the land
is pure. How one sees makes it possible to be saved. As a
rabbi, Jesus saves his students from ignorance. Amitabha establishes
by his 48 vows a pure land. He doesnt save but creates
a sphere of influence. The pure land is, first of all, a
state of mind. At what level has Christianity developed to
see the redeemer as a sphere of influence?
Fr. Alexei Smith: Thats an interesting
way to approach the Christian life. The sphere of influence
would be the community living in Christ.
Ven. Sumana: Sunyata must come from our
experience. Buddhism is non-dualistic. No self we dont
have to use sunyata. You call me Sumana because of my body.
When I separate, you cannot say which part is Sumana. Conventional
truth says this is Sumana, when separated, no Sumana. You
must go into experience. Everything is experience. Dukkah
is suffering and self does not last for ever. Anatta: I change,
I cannot hold on to youth. Earth, air, water, fire, are the
four things that constitute me. Air is the breath, earth
the flesh, fire the warmth, water the blood; if in balance,
I exist. If imbalanced, something is wrong. Nothing is there.
Buddha emphasized that I have to be have understanding to
help other, I have to know how to swim to save others from
Why did Buddha leave the palace? Isnt that where we
all want to live? He left because the world is not a palace.
Theres suffering, birth, old age, sickness, death. Its
close to us and therefore hard to see, but if you see it
then you can jump our of it. You need to deliver yourself
before you can deliver others. How can we illuminate delusions
and cravings? Through detachment, knowing our duty, keeping
in mind our impermanence. The Buddha tells about the queen
whose servant broke a dish. Why be upset, she said, my child
was just killed in the war. Everything is impermanent, subject
to change. Buddha told his disciples not to believe what
he said but to try it and experience it for ourselves. We
can tame elephants, but our own minds?
We have the vow of the bodhisattva in Theravada. Its
an individual vowing for the future to cultivate the self.
It takes a long long time, or you can do it now, the short
way. In both ways there is enlightenment. Kwan Yin took the
bodhisattva vow and will be a Buddha in the future. There
is the story of Angula Mala. He was his teachers best
student and the other students were jealous. They told the
teacher that he seduced the teachers wife, so the teacher
gave him the task of collecting 999 thumbs. He went on his
way killing people in anger to satisfy his teachers
demand. The Buddha would be his 999th. The Buddha saw he would
be enlightened. Angula Mala ran and ran after the Buddha and
could not catch him. Why are you running so fast?
Angula Mala shouted. Ive stopped, the Buddha
said, why do you continue to run? The Buddha
was calm. Angula Mala saw his delusion, his anger, and regained
his memory. He fell down before the Buddha and became a disciple.
Why did this happen? Because every morning the Buddha dedicated
himself to helping others. Same with the bodhisattva. All
the time he must cultivate his mind and sacrifice everything
to help the other in whatever the other needs. It is very
strict, very demanding. Not everyone can do it. You have
to be strong willed. Who ever does it, we prize them.
Our next meeting will be August 1 at the SGI Friendship Center.
We will continue to discuss Karunas paper. If we can,
let us read the Heart Sutra.