Los Angeles Buddhist- Catholic Dialogue

May 30, 2001

Focolare House

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 Dharma’s 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 doesn’t 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. Didn’t 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 that’s not sufficient. It’s 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: It’s 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 we know.

Dr. Kerze: What Christians so beautifully call “mystery” doesn’t mean you don’t have to explain it. It’s 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 it’s to easily intellectualized. The mystery, in the end, is us. That we’ve participated in divine life, that we’ve been transformed, that we’ve gone beyond.

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 it’s a transforming process. It’s not something that happens and you’re 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 of transformation.

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, there’s a different level of silence. It’s 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. Karuna’s paper, has great social implications. It’s 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 don’t 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 Karuna’s 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 and ourselves.

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 don’t know it. The Bodhisattva generates a Buddha field in which conditions are such that beings may discover the enlightenment they already have. There’s 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 doesn’t 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: That’s 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 don’t 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 drowning.

Why did Buddha leave the palace? Isn’t that where we all want to live? He left because the world is not a palace. There’s suffering, birth, old age, sickness, death. It’s 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. It’s 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 teacher’s best student and the other students were jealous. They told the teacher that he seduced the teacher’s wife, so the teacher gave him the task of collecting 999 thumbs. He went on his way killing people in anger to satisfy his teacher’s 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. “I’ve 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 Karuna’s paper. If we can, let us read the Heart Sutra.