Los Angeles, Buddhist- Roman Catholic Dialogue

September 15, 1999


Present: Rev. Noriaki Ito, Gordon Gibb, Rev. Kusala, Sr. Thomas Bernard. Fr. Jim Fredericks, Anita Merwin, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Rev. Heidi Singh, Ven. Piyananda, Ven. Sumana, Ralph Barnes, Michael Kerze

Ven. Karuna Dharma sent her email response on the Spirituality of Interreligious Dialogue document to John Borelli. Other responses were shared. Michael will provide them to John Borelli before he drafts a response to Cardinal Arinze. Michael will be seeing John in a few weeks. We said a prayer for Ven. Dr. Ratanasara that he may recover from his recent illness. We discussed the sutra on Maitreya Ven. Karuna provided last time.

Gordon Gibb: When will Maitreya come to the earth? In China there is the view that it will happen when people's hearts are ready for him. Other Buddhists at other periods have thought it will happen when times are dark, when the dharma is no longer accessible. Our order at Hsi Lai honors the tradition of Maitreya very much. Some think he will not come back at all as an individual but as the manifestation of tolerance and compassion in the community and in the hearts and minds of the people.

Ven. Piyananda: In Sri Lanka, in popular Buddhism he is discussed all the time. People wait for him and they will be reborn when Maitreya Buddha comes.

Sr. Thomas: You have talked about Maitreya as an individual and as a community. Could the Buddha be a value system rather than a human person? Is there any connection between the returning Buddha and a value system rather than an individual?

Gordon Gibb: Buddha certainly manifested as one individual but the Buddha is certainly beyond any one individual.

Ven Piyananda: All Buddhist traditions, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, all agree Maitreya will come as a human person.

Fr. Jim: But the historical Buddha said: He who sees me sees the dharma, he who sees the dharma sees me. Here's two thirds of the Three Jewels. Could you say, he who sees the sangha sees the Buddha and the dharma. He who really knows the Buddha and the dharma, is a part of the sangha?

Ven. Piyananda: Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not want to point out the person. For example, in Christianity, you call "God," we call "good." You call "devil," we call "evil." Buddha said, dharma means his teaching the noble truths, higher qualities. When a person follows that path, that person achieves Buddha nature and that person can see the truth. Therefore, we do not need a person. Sangha means the united community to carry out the message.

Fr. Jim: I can understand what it means to take refuge in the Buddha and to take refuge in the dharma. What does it mean to take refuge in the sangha?

Ven. Piyananda: Unity is the most important thing in the Buddhist community. For the lay person to follow the sangha does not mean worship but to follow the guidance of the monks.

Rev. Kusala: As Buddha is the living embodiment of dharma, so sangha is the living embodiment of vinaya, the monastic rules of life.

Ven. Karuna: When I was a young nun, someone asked our teacher: what is more important, the Buddha, the dharma, or the sangha? Some said the Buddha because without him there is no dharma. Some said the dharma because without it there would be no Buddha. But our teacher said he thought it was the sangha, because with out the sangha there would be no dharma, for the sangha presents it to everyone else. Here sangha is used in a very traditional sense, to refer to the community of monks and nuns. The Japanese, I believe, are the only ones who use sangha to refer to the lay people too.

Rev. Nori Ito: In our Japanese tradition when we think of the Three Treasures we regard the Buddha as our eternal teacher, the dharma as our eternal medicine, and the sangha as our eternal friend. It also includes all those who support the sangha. It is not only limited to human beings.

Gordon Gibb: If we understand that the dharma was not a body of teaching at the time of Sakyamuni Buddha but as phenomena he befriends and opens to the understanding, then refuge, as in the venerable Ch'an tradition, would be to have the self rest in the self, which is to say that what is the nature of the self is everything, all phenomena that is happening. To take refuge in the dharma is to rest in everything that is happening. To recognize the Buddha is to recognize yourself as such.

Ven. Sumana: The sangha is divided into two, the Arya sangha, the noble disciples, enlightened, who have reached the stream, and Samutti sangha, the conventional disciples, who aspire to enlightenment. We venerate both together. We honor, today, the present sangha.

Michael Kerze: When I had the good fortune to have lunch at Ven. Piyananda's temple a while ago while visiting Ven. Dr. Ratanasara, I was struck by what he said to the lay people who had made the food and donated it to the monks. Among other things he said that not only were they giving to the sangha there, but also to the mahasangha, the sangha which went from Buddha's first disciples to far into the future. I thought it was a powerful symbolism of the unity of the sangha and I reflected on the symbolism of the mystical body of Christ. In Christianity it means all those disciples of Christ from the very beginning to far into the future, the Church, united in Christ as one. I don't think I could have appreciated the richness of the symbolism of the mahasangha if I did not have the mystical body to compare it to.

Ven. Sumana: Everything that is given is given to the sangha. Everything that I have belongs to the sangha. At death, what we have goes to the sangha. I always have a home at any temple because temples belong to the sangha and I belong to the sangha. In Thailand, the temple is the center of life for everyone.

Michael Kerze: We began discussing Maitreya and I would like to go back and mention two things that fascinated me in the sutra. The first is that the life of Maitreya seems modeled on the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, how he belonged to the same caste of people as the Buddha, how his mother delivered him, how he grew, whether he'd be a cakravartin, a world conqueror, or a Buddha, how he went out to achieve enlightenment. A second story tells how the devas make an old man, a sick man, and a corpse appear before him, then he preaches to everyone about how lucky they are to be there as he preaches the glorious dharma. I wondered if there was a model for a buddha.

The second is the mythological setting in which Maitreya's coming is portrayed. Clearly it is a world which is not this world though it is, essentially, this world, but with profound changes. There is no ocean, for example, and human beings live a remarkably long life, women don't get married until they are 500 years old. People have achieved the fulness of what could be achieved physically. Clearly this is not a historical prophecy for it takes place in a time and space very different from the time and space we experience. I reflected on the stories in Revelation which is also set in a mythological framework where the forces of good and the forces of evil contend in highly symbolic images and events. So I wonder if, for our traditions to articulate a future of universal enlightenment or salvation, we can only place it beyond historical time and space because that is where it truly exists? And because it is beyond this time and space its power and grace becomes accessible to us for then we are not bound by the limitations of our historical condition.

Rev. Kusala: I've looked at the story of the Buddha as an interesting story in that there is a lot of truth and reality there. The story has been used before so it has great power. But the real aspect of Buddhism is that it ends the suffering. As Ven. Dr. Ratanasara explained to me many years ago, we have this wonderful tree and the stories are the bark and the practice is the core. The bark has allowed the tree to live for 2500 years and without it we might not have the practice today. To someone in deep suffering or dying, I won't tell the story but address their condition. But to a child, I will, for it gives a wonderful human context to the teaching.

Ven. Piyananda: The early canon of Buddhism did not have the stories of his life. That developed to bring the teaching to the common folk. The early canon talked about how Buddha realized the world problem is the sickness. Aging is the problem, death is the problem. To solve the problem is the monk.

Michael Kerze: This reminds me of similar things in Christianity, the stories of Jesus birth in the stable, for example, is a wonderful story. And the virgin birth &endash; that is found elsewhere too. There is a real power to these stories which exert a fascination over us and also satisfies our need to know origins.

Gordon Gibb: The stories are reasonable but they take us beyond reason. We are able to touch something in the psyche or the cosmic archetype. The mythic understanding of the Incarnation is not a valid way of understanding Christ in Christian theology. It jolts you to be able to think of human flesh in the same way as thinking of the Buddha in human form. Not that it is not human but something that fulfills the human that is also beyond reason.

Michael Kerze: I think of Eliade here who talks about the dialectic of the sacred, that it cannot be represented except in very specific and very concrete forms, which then are vehicles for its presence in the world, whether the form be a text, as story, a ritual, or a person, place, or thing. What is the relation of the sutra, the text, to the dharma? In Christianity the scripture will call itself the word of God; it is the Word of God and also this particular text.

Rev. Kusala: As Ven. Walpola Rahula said, there are fourteen definitions for the dharma. The canon is very much the words of human beings. It may not be what the Buddha said, but what the monks remembered the Buddha said.

Anita Merwin: Raimundo Pannikar talks about the "terror of written language," because then it denies the spirit of the oral tradition. When there is an oral tradition it is passed on and on and memorized, there is something very still alive in that. When it is written, there is something very spiritually vacant about that.

Gordon Gibb: There is the question of the authority of scriptures. Here there is a real difference between our traditions. For Buddhism, the authority comes from experience; in Christianity it comes form a source outside itself. It is a decentralized authenticating of the text.

Fr. Fredericks: Would this mean that historical critical studies of texts in Buddhism are less important than in Christianity?

Rev. Kusala: What we are talking about is ultimate reality in experience and relative reality in the understanding.

Gordon Gibb: Buddhism would probably place more significance on the significance of an event than on whether it really happened. Both are important.

Sr. Thomas: Every time we take a group on pilgrimage we tell them before we go that whether or not this is the exact geographical site of what happened in the life of Jesus is less important than the significance of what happened there and the faith of the people who have been coming for centuries to that spot and recognized its important.

Ven. Piyananda: Practice is more important than place. There is the story of how, when the Buddha was passing away, a monk did not come and see him. He was criticized and the Buddha called him to him. Why haven't you seen me? the Buddha asked. Because I was following your teaching and meditating, the monk answered. Do not criticize this monk, the Buddha said, for he is following my teaching in practice.

Rev. Nori Ito: In our Pure Land tradition, one problem we have is language. Japanese allows much more grey in expressing things; English is very much black and white. Our challenge is to put the values into contemporary language. Isn't the important question, how the experience resonates in the heart?