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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 30 nuns that gathered were:
NUNS IN THE WEST
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
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)
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
* What can be done to simplify our lives, our faith, and our relationships?
* What do we understand by the related but distinct terms nun
* How can we become more open to and accepting of differences among
* 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
Adaptation of our traditions: We want to be open to change but also
Topics that Emerged from the Small Group Sessions Following the Snap
ways of being a nun
* Engagement in externals and commitment to an interior life: need for
* The notion of expanding the heart
* Innovative forms of social action
* Moments of transformation, the need for continual transformation
Appropriate garb for nuns/sisters
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
* The vows create conditioning: What kind? With what effects?
A new way of social action: teaching others to express their emotions
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?
financially self-supportingan 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
* Focus on intuition: Do we trust it?
What does presence mean?
TeachingSpiritual DirectionSpiritual Formation: How do they
Voiced in the Entire Group during Late Afternoon Discussion:
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
* 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
* We need to know all religions, for they can each enrich our
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
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?
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 ones inner clarity?
3 In the
West, celibacy is difficult but essential for monastics. How do we protect
this cherished practice?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
Mary Margaret Funk, OSB
Our Lady of Grace Monastery
Beech Grove, Indiana