front row- Ven. Yifa and Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB

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The MID (Monastic Interreligious Dialogue) sponsored a gathering of "Nuns in the West" May 23-26, 2003 hosted by Ven. Yifa at Hsi lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, CA. The event was recommended by the nuns who participated at Gethsemani Encounter II, April 2002.

The Dalai Lama wasn't there but he has a theme we've heard him sound: it's not that we want to perpetuate either American or Tibetan ways of living, but rather, how do we cultivate our spiritual values in this world we call 'West'. In dialogue 'East' often refers to the inner life and 'West' to the outer life. What does it mean when Western nuns who have gone more contemplative and tending to their inner life and eastern nuns have come west and are now socially engaged in apostolic work. What can we learn from each other? Is this a moment we can bring the best from our traditions and be a presence of the monastic way of life for the West? The gathering was limited to 30 nuns. They were without written papers, observers, media and agenda. They learned from the Gethsemani Encounter II that friendship emerges. This event was our next step in the dialogue.

The 30 nuns that gathered were:




1. Sister Ruth Fox, OSB
2. Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB
3. Sister Rosemary Huber, MM
4. Sister Kathryn Huber, OSB
5. Sister Rita Keegan, OSB
6. Sister Joan Kirby, RSCJ
7. Sister Jeanne Knearle, SP
8. Sister Virginia Matter, OSB
9. Sister Barbara McCracken, OSB
10. Sister Jeanne Ranek, OSB
11. Sister Sarah Schwartzberg, OSB
12. Sister Kathleen Deignan, CND
13. Sister Rebecca Cown


14. Pravrajika Saradesha Prana

Buddhist Accepted Invitation:

1. Eido Frances Carney
2. Thubten Choldron
3. Rev Meian Elbert
4. Ven. Tenzin Kacho
5. Shunko Sakai
6. SeaGwang Sunim
7. Ajahn Sundara
8. Il A Sunim
9. Il Jin Sunim
10. Ven. Gyalten Thartso
11. Ven Lekshe Tsomo
12. Jisho Warner
13. Yi Chao ( Temple Contact)
14. Ven. Yifa
15. Ven. Zhiru
16. Dai-En Bennage

This wonderful Buddhist Temple provided hospitality with plenty of space for our dialogue, chants, chats and exchange of views, talent and stories. We took the first day to hear a snap shot of each of the participants... from Benedictines, Maryknolls, Sisters of Providence, Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Catholic Orothodox, Congregation of Notre Dame, Vedanta Society, Soto Zen, Fo Guang Shan, Forest Thai Tradition, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Mt. Equity Zendo, Jihoji, Olympia Zen Center, Boise, New Skete, Benedictine Grange, Shasta Abbey, Bolder, Ontario, Or, Temple of Understanding, St. Mary of the Woods, Ferdinand, Beech Grove, Nepal, Atchison, St. Paul, Yankton, Hollywood, Osage, Redwoods Valley, Sebastopol, Cambridge, Claremont, Hawaii, Richardton ND.

The process was first the background and practice of each participant shared liesurely, then a gathering of issues, concerns, themes and hot topics. We clustered them into three themes: l) inner life of training, 2) balance of inner contemplative work and outer social engagement and 3) community and role of authority, authenticity and what's in common about the monastic way of life.

The second day we shared on the three topics in three groups. The dialogue was sustained during meals and our formal sessions. We punctuated our time together with both formal and informal prayers and chants. We participated and observed the chants of our host temple and of some of our participants. On Sunday evening Father Tom Sherman, SJ, from Marymount-Loyola University, presided for uour Eucharist, a first in the Stupa. Our evenings were common recreation of nun-talk.

We closed with gratitude and a sense of an event that will reveal it's fruits for years and years to come.

Peace... Sister Meg, (Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB)

Mary Margaret Funk
Our Lady of Grace Monastery
1402 Southern Avenue
Beech Grove, Indiana 46107-1197

More on the “Nuns in the West” Meeting... The MID Journal

At the annual board meeting of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue in September 2002 it was agreed that MID should sponsor a gathering of “Nuns in the West,” to be hosted by Ven. Yifa at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Such an event had already been suggested by participants at the Second Gethsemani Encounter, held earlier that year. Although the Dalai Lama was unable to attend that encounter, he has often encouraged reflection on the theme of cultivating our spiritual values in that part of the world we call “West.”

This theme resonated especially with the women monastics at the Gethsemani Encounter. They wondered about the significance of the fact that many Western nuns are being drawn more and more toward a contemplative life style, while those from Eastern traditions have come to the West and are now socially engaged in apostolic work. What, they asked, can the two groups learn from each other? To promote sharing at a deep level, it was decided that the gathering at Hsi Lai would be limited to thirty nuns and would be held without formal papers, observers, media presence, or a formal agenda.

The gathering took place from May 23-26, 2003. Among the thirteen Christian monastics participating were six current or former members of the MID board (Sr. Ruth Fox, Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, Sr. Virginia Matter, Sr. Barbara McCracken, Sr. Jeanne Ranek, and Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg) and one MID advisor, Sr. Rosemary Huber of Maryknoll. There were also sixteen Buddhist nuns, three of whom had been at Gethsemani Encounter II, and one Hindu nun from the Vedanta Society. Sr. Mary Margaret wrote the following account of the meeting.

The thirty of us represented numerous traditions and came from many different parts of the country. The Christian participants included seven Benedictines, two Maryknolls, a Sister of Providence, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, a Sister of Notre Dame, and a Russian Orthodox nun. The sixteen Buddhists showed similar diversity: a Soto Zen nun, one from the Forest Thai tradition, several Tibetan Buddhists, and others with roots in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. We came together from monasteries in many parts of the United States, including New York, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, and California, as well as from communities in Canada, England, and Nepal.

After a warm welcome by the abbot of Hsi Lai Temple we spent the first day, a Friday, hearing five-minute verbal “snap shots” from each of the participants. After every seven or eight of these snap shots we paused to gather together the issues, concerns, themes, and “hot topics” that had been raised. Other topics surfaced in our small-group sessions. We clustered all of these topics into three areas for further consideration: (1) the inner life of training, (2) the need for balance between inner, contemplative work and outer, social engagement, and (3) community, the role of authority, and what we have in common in our monastic practice. Listed below are many of the topics that yielded these three general areas. Although the list itself may appear somewhat dry, the topics actually led to very animated and sustained discussion not only during our formal dialogue in the stately conference room but also during the “in-between moments” throughout the day and during the evening periods of “nun talk” in the residence before we retired each night.

Some Issues that Emerged from the “Snap Shots”:

* Are wisdom and compassion “dualistic” or complementary?
* We are products of our history: How is this a plus? A minus?
* How do we cultivate respect for the diversity and complexity of our traditions?
* What can be done to simplify our lives, our faith, and our relationships?
* What do we understand by the related but distinct terms “nun” and “sister”?
* How can we become more open to and accepting of differences among us?
* What does “community” mean in our various traditions?
* How can we best confront problems of patriarchy and hierarchy?
* Issues of control (personal and communal) and of leadership
* How can we be relevant to our world and yet remain faithful to our traditions?
* Adaptation of our traditions: We want to be open to change but also authentic.

Some Topics that Emerged from the Small Group Sessions Following the Snap Shots:
Group One:

* Various ways of being a nun
* Engagement in externals and commitment to an interior life: need for balance
* The notion of “expanding the heart”
* Innovative forms of social action
* Moments of transformation, the need for continual transformation
* Appropriate garb for nuns/sisters

Group Two:

* Chant as a vehicle for expressing feelings about contemplative life
* Music as a way of life
* The meaning of being “contemplative in action”
* Feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, obtuseness
* The difference between humility and humiliation
* Do we need to earn the right to be a contemplative? Is this deep in women’s consciousness?
* The vows create conditioning: What kind? With what effects?
* A new way of social action: teaching others to express their emotions

Group Three:

* Social activism: Does it inform contemplative life as strongly as the latter informs social action?
* What do we mean by “cultivation of mind”?
* Breakdown vs. breakthrough: Is breakdown caused by lack of community or lack of cultivation of mind?
* The role of the teacher in the various traditions
* The feminine divine
* What is the value of organization in all of this?

Group Four:

* Becoming financially self-supporting—an important contemporary issue
* Prayer in Christianity and in Buddhism
* Evolution of the human psyche: No established religion seems to know how to deal with this.
* Different manifestations of God: Where does this notion fit in our various traditions?
* Focus on intuition: Do we trust it?
* What does “presence” mean?
* Teaching—Spiritual Direction—Spiritual Formation: How do they differ?

Comments Voiced in the Entire Group during Late Afternoon Discussion:

* "I appreciated listening to the experience of others, especially the openness and genuineness of all who spoke.”

* “There was a good discussion about ‘grace’ as a sense of the presence of God. Buddhists do not have a direct sense of God but of conversion, turning to new life.”

* “The discussion about discipline was helpful. We all come from traditions that reverence discipline and training. What is a realistic expectation of how to train and of what training can accomplish? Does mixing lineages or traditions make training easier or more difficult?”

* “Extreme discipline may ultimately be helpful (and often is), but how can we avoid the harm it may cause along the way?”

* “A problem today is that scholars are taking the place of monastic teachers. The real teacher is a symbolic action, not someone who talks a lot. The problem is found in both Buddhist and Christian monasticism. For Christians the problem began when universities arose out of monasteries and the intellect, not the heart, became predominant.”

* “Can Buddhists teach Christian meditation practice and techniques, or is our faith understanding so different that this is not possible? In turn, can Christians share Buddhist meditation techniques while knowing that Buddhist meditation is a religious act from a tradition different from Christianity?”

* “The novice directors in our Catholic communities often trained us ‘above the river’ and not below, at the deep level of inner training for contemplation.”

* “At some stage many Christians jettison doctrine and are drawn simply to the quest for God. At this level there is great unanimity with Buddhists.”

* “We need to know all religions, for they can each enrich our own path."

The Benedictine participants met near the end of the meeting to plan our report to the MID board for its annual meeting at Mepkin Abbey this October. We hope to propose a second gathering of Nuns in the West, to be held over the Memorial Day weekend in 2005, again at Hsi Lai Temple. Other participants will be drafting their own reports. I would like to conclude this one of mine with some questions that have become important to me:

1. How do we best understand God, and how can we Christians make our understanding of God more intelligible to Buddhists? And what do we mean when we speak of the presence of Christ in our hearts?

2. How can nuns be accountable to traditional lineages when there is such disruption and discontinuity in our times? Is it wise to choose teachers from different traditions? How can teachings be recognized as incompatible and not helpful for promoting one’s inner clarity?

3 In the West, celibacy is difficult but essential for monastics. How do we protect this cherished practice?

4. How important is ordination? Who is qualified to start a new monastic foundation? More basically, what specifies the monastic way of life? So many people want meditation practice and the fruits of a clear mind without going through training and accepting structures. How much training should nuns in the West insist on as part of their heritage? And who and where are the qualified teachers?

5. There are many practical questions about money, lay support, and collaboration. How can be we available for service to others and yet not end up being purchased or corrupted or diluted in our practice?

6. Lay Dharma teachers, or Oblates in the Christian monastic tradition, pledge to live monastic values in lay life, but many of them are now teaching the monastic way of life-and yet this can only be known from the inside by having lived it. How can the monastic have a clear voice and properly collaborate with lay teachers? If there is an “archetype of the monk” in every person, is it just a matter of different outward forms lived according to personal zeal and historical conditions? Or is the monastic way of life truly distinct from the lay way?

7. Lay teachers and monastics alike often select “this and that” in an eclectic way from the whole of the life and make their selection “portable.” For example, can a Christian practice Zazen and also take refuge in Christ? How much mixing and matching can be done without harming the traditions as authentic vehicles of spiritual transmission?

Nuns of the West: A Reflection Six Months Later

The lead article in the previous issue of this bulletin was Sr. Meg's report on the gathering known as Nuns of the West, which took place from May 23-26, 2003. In the following article, she offers further reflection on what was one of the most important events of interreligious dialogue that MID has ever sponsored.

In May 2003 thirty of us "nuns" gathered at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, near Los Angeles. Our sponsoring sisters were Ven. YiFa and Ven. YiChao of the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, which was founded in Taiwan by Master Hsing Yun in the middle of the twentieth century. Gathered at Hsi Lai were 15 Buddhist nuns, 14 Christian (one of them Eastern Orthodox), and one Hindu. Seven of the Christian nuns were Benedictines and seven were from apostolic communities. The Buddhist nuns were all working and living in the United States, but their countries of origin included China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Tibet, plus two American converts to Zen Buddhism who have spent time in Asia but are working in the United States.

The nuns who participated in Gethsemani Encounter II in April 2002 recommended this event, which the MID board sponsored. Although the Dalai Lama had been ill and was not able to come to the Gethsemani event, the theme we had heard him voice at previous gatherings gave impetus to this initiative: "It's not that we want to perpetuate either American or Tibetan ways of living, but rather we want to explore how to cultivate our spiritual values in this world we call "West".

In dialogue "East" often refers to the inner life and "West" to the outer life. What, then, does it mean when western nuns have become more contemplative and begun tending to their inner life, while eastern nuns have come west and are now socially engaged in apostolic work? What can we learn from each other? Is this a moment when we can bring together the best from both our traditions and be a presence of the monastic way of life for the West?

For this gathering we had our own residence, a building that was big enough for all thirty of us, with a large living room that we used for common "recreation." On Saturday we went up to the temple and prayed with the home community, then had breakfast in the large dining room set apart for the monastic community. That first full day we shared five minute "snap shots" of our lives. As each of the thirty shared, we stopped from time to time to list the issues, concerns, and areas of interest that we wanted to return to for dialogue. When we typed up the list we found it numbered over seventy items. Then we clustered the topics into the following four groups:

The need for quite, simple prayer.

For Christians that need was expressed as experiencing union with God through contemplative prayer. Buddhists commit themselves to silent meditation, chant and recitation of sacred scriptures. Practice transforms. How is one's personal transformation helpful for others? Does transformation usually happen in a series of moments, or is it continual? Who are the authentic teachers? How much practice does one need to uproot one's former way of life and put on the "monastic way of life"?

The need to find the proper balance between a life of contemplation and a life of action.

While the Christians, usually very active and oriented toward service, spoke of having re-discovered their contemplative roots in recent years; the Buddhists, usually thought of as primarily contemplative, spoke of having discovered a need to engage in active service to others. One common question arose as a result of this discussion: Does social action inform the contemplative life as strongly as the contemplative life informs social action? Does training in apostolic selfless service replace training in contemplative practice? Or is training in contemplative practice essential for apostolic selfless service?

The need to articulate what community means for each of our traditions as well as the role of authority within it.

Each of us struggles to know how community operates optimally and to deal with issues of personal and communal control, especially as they affect community. Two questions began to emerge: Can we more clearly articulate what we mean by "community" in each of our traditions? How different are perceptions of the relationship between authority and community in each of our traditions, especially at a time, in all our cultures, when individualism and sexism are prominent?

The need for discipline and clear practices that enable us to sustain our traditions and to pass them on to new generations.

Without fairly rigid disciplines, we all agreed, we would not value our own tradition and our own communities so highly; we could not make much progress in meditation nor could we pass discipline on to the next generation. This led us to two primary questions that concerned us all: How, in a world that values the individual freedom for spontaneity and discretionary time more than training and discipline, can we sustain our practice for a lifetime? How can we balance the necessity of discipline with our commitment to socially engaged ministry and still have time for leisure that promotes our equanimity as persons and fosters our living in community? The tension centers around balancing time for meditation practice, social ministry, and community responsibilities, and maintaining our quality of life as human beings. We feel that we are the elders and need to set the example of balancing work and prayer as we reach out to the wider society and train the next generation.

In our informal conversations the dialogue was warm, personal, and profoundly inquisitive of each other's "ways" of living the mystery. We shared food, laughter, rituals, Eucharist (the Buddhist were engaged observers), and stories that will bond us for this lifetime.

In the time since May the Nuns of the West have formed "dyads" of conversation. The dyads are to stay in touch with one another and continue the dialogue that the weekend began. It's an optional arrangement. We suggested that each of us have two dialogue partners: one to cross over to the other tradition and one to share with a like-minded sister of one's own tradition. The benefit of this is that we not only learn about "the other" but also develop skills of dialogue with a peer who will call us to deeper practice and refection about what it means to be a nun.

We are also engaging two researchers from Columbia University to do a sociological study on the Nuns of the West. The research is being conduced by Wendy Cadge, who has a doctorate from Bowdoin College, and Courtney Jane Bender, whose doctorate is from Columbia itself. Each nun will be interviewed by phone on questions about her life and her reflections about being a nun in the West. The research was prompted by the need for the gathering at Hsi Lai Nuns to be closed to media and observers in order to promote deep sharing and honest dialogue, while we nevertheless wanted to share the fruits of our conversations with women everywhere. The research will eventually be published.

The MID board meeting at Mepkin received a report on the Nuns of the West meeting and authorized a second gathering in 2005. The board also approved a similar gathering for Monks of the West. The monks will gather by invitation at a monastery still to be determined. The topic chosen was the monastic vow of celibacy.

To report on a dialogue as I am doing here misses the immediacy of having been there. The written narrative about what we did, who was there, and the issues we discussed is definitely secondary to the dynamism of "being together". I, for one, tasted the deepest level of dialogue that certainly was communion. My memory of that wonderful sharing has quickened my joy at being a nun myself. With Nuns of the West I moved around in that sacred place where there is an archetype of the nun in every contemplative soul, not as an idea or a question but as a way of living. There will be Nuns of the West II, but I'm already seated at the table of dialogue during these "in-between" times with my dyad partners and with all of my sisters here in Beech Grove.

Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB
Our Lady of Grace Monastery
Beech Grove, Indiana


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