Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action:
Chicago, 1996
(transcript online below)

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Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: Chicago 1996


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Highlights from the Working Group "Practice Across Traditions" held at the 5th International Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Conference in Chicago July 28-Aug. 3, 1996.

As the Buddhist-Christian dialogue spreads around the world, it is taking on a new intensity. Not only are many Christians practicing Buddhist forms of meditation, but some Western Buddhists are expressing a new interest in their Christian roots.

At the International Conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies held in Chicago in the summer of 1996, some of these Christians and Buddhists met as a working group on practice across traditions to discuss various themes like wisdom from the point of view of both traditions.

Included are presentations by Susan Postal, Sr. Kathleen Reiley, Ruben Habito, James and Tyra Arraj, and some responses of the group.

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Online Transcript:

Susan Postal

I have been involved in Buddhist practice since 1969 or 70, first in the Tibetan tradition for ten years, and then in Zen since 1980, studying first with Glassman at the Zen community center in New York, and then in 1987 I began studying with the late Maureen Stuart in Cambridge, Maureen ordained me at the Meeting House which actually was opened as a sitting place with Glassman - our little zendo. So since 1986 I’ve had the great pleasure of using a Quaker Meeting House in Rye which is an antique church built in the 1830s. Since her death in 1990 people started to arrive - really fine students. Zazen does us. That happens quite naturally. In my other life I am a director of activities in a nursing home. At our zendo all we own are cushions. We have $200 in the back, and that’s fine. My teacher was something of a maverick, and I seem to be her daughter.

Wisdom and compassion in Buddhism are so intimately linked. Prajna Karuna is sometimes described as two wings of the bird. We can’t seem to fly in the life of the Buddha if we don’t have prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion). Sometimes it is seen not just as wings of the bird, but also as prajna - as the ignition of wisdom that is like the lighting of a candle, and then compassion is the light that comes from that. So there is this intimate connection between wisdom and compassion.

The bodhisattva ideal is to be fully engaged as practitioners insofar as we have any sense of aim or direction. Even though there is nothing to be gained, it is to become a servant.

Becoming clear enough to see and respond. The wisdom of clear seeing has likened this wisdom to a clear mirror that reflects completely impartially whatever appears. The mirror shows us flowers, and shows us shit, and there is no difference. The mirror doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling that I had when I said that word, and maybe you had when you heard it. We are uncomfortable, but mirror-mind just reflects. Buddhist teachings so often give us a picture of something that is so hard to describe, so mirror for wisdom is a wonderful kind of image. Dogen had a poem where he uses a wind bell that just rings - impartially - like a great mouth - just ringing, and if the wind that comes by stinks of garbage, it just rings. Ding-a-ling. And if the wind that comes by is perfumed with musk, it doesn’t matter. Ding-a-ling. So wind bell mind, mirror mind, gives us a sense of this response and reflection from a clear place that has no judgment, no liking and disliking. That gives a sense of what is meant by wisdom.

I am going to say something that sounds critical, but I am very sorry that Thich Nhat Hanh has translated prajna as understanding because to me understanding always puts me in my head as figuring out something, and he talks about right understanding, and I know he means wisdom, but I feel the English choice sidetracks us, and I have seen people who then think they have an understanding, and they do have an understanding, but it isn’t yet wisdom. It is a idea that comes from Buddhism, an idea of emptiness, an idea of interconnectedness, an idea of interdependence, and we need to begin learning and hearing and receiving teachings, and we begin with having ideas of things, but that’s just the beginning.

To embody wisdom is where we are headed, to begin to serve, to begin to have compassion, and to be truly engaged requires that wisdom be ours in a literal, physical, cellular level, not just some idea about it. Obviously as someone who leads Zen I feel that sitting practice is the only thing I know that helps us in this embodying physically, truly having nothing that we hold dear that we think is our understanding about having it be who we are.

There is a story from The Transmission of Light series. A child was born after only seven days, and the mother had a dream. The child was born with a translucently clear, mysteriously clean and fragrant body, so the child was clearly an unusual child. And the child was also born with a mirror that went with him wherever he went. When he was lying down the mirror hovered over him like a canopy, and as he got older he held it in his hand, and when he went out to play he carried the mirror, and the mirror was always with him, either in his hand or behind him or over him. He said that he saw all the Buddhas and the boddhisatvas in the mirror, and they taught him. The previous ancestor, Soginandai, had an auspicious sign, and he knew his successor was somewhere high on this mountain, so he felt this auspiciousness. (It was like coming to Chicago. Did you all see the rainbows?) Soginandai and his entourage climbed the mountain and found a hut, and then found this young child of 6 or 7 or 8, holding a mirror, and there was this wonderful dialogue. The child said, "I can see. Beings can see each other. Buddhas can see each other through this mirror." Further dialogue with Soginandai who became his teacher helped the child, though still very young, see that he was holding wisdom, and it had been given to him at birth, and it was totally precious and totally extraordinary, but it was in his hand, and that somehow he didn’t have full faith in his own Buddha nature. When he chose to leave home and was ordained, the mirror disappeared.

I just wasn’t to ask each of us, "What are we holding here? What is so precious and dear - whether Christian or Buddhist, or both - that’s sacred, that’s special, that’s luminous, that’s wise, and we’re holding it, and dare we have empty hands, and dare we trust that we can embody mirror mind, and serve, and be fully engaged?


Kathleen Reiley

I began to do zazen in Japan, hoping it would help me to know the Japanese culture and the Japanese people, but as I began to practice, Yamada Koun Roshi used to say that anyone who begins to practice Zen, whatever faith tradition they come from, hopefully through the practice they will become a better Buddhist, or Christian, or Jew.

I do know that through the years I haven’t felt a dichotomy. I’ve felt a wonderful deep at-home-ness in the zendo, but I don’t think it has taken me away at all from my own Christian tradition. And that is very important to me because I’m a Maryknoll sister and many of the other sisters I live with don’t practice Zen. For me to be able to have the time and the freedom to go to the zendo and to go to sesshin and to sit every day, and also to feel very much at home in celebrating the Eucharist and praying together is part of the wisdom. I am one with whoever comes into my life. I think this wisdom, if I let it take over in my life, then I am at home wherever I am, and I think it is the common ground. It is what helps us respect and be open to people of other traditions and other practices.

What I love so much about zazen is the silence. It’s not the ideas, not the terminology that we use, it is the actual practice. Through this silent sitting it is amazing what begins to happen to individuals and to groups. In the past couple of years I have been given permission to teach with supervision, and that has been a wonderful privilege because when people come at the beginning of a sesshin you can see the worry and the anxiety and stress in their faces and bodies. It isn’t anything I do or say. It is giving yourself over to this silent practice and how it is so transforming. people leave refreshed in their spirit.

Right now, especially in this modern world where there is so much stimulus and so many choices to read and listen and do that somehow to make the time in our lives, to enter into this deep silent center and let that wisdom that is truly given to us from the beginning, to let it grow and let it flourish so in our everyday life we can truly be one with our brothers and sisters, trees and flowers, and everything that needs to be loved and cherished.


Tyra Arraj

When our children were 4 and 5, we moved to the woods 18 years ago, and all this time we are living in 100 square miles where right not there is no one but us. We have no electricity except for two solar panels, and no well. Every time we thought about a well, Jim decided he wanted to publish a book instead, so I say we have 12 wells. We get 4’ of snow in the wintertime, so sometimes in order to get in and out we have to snowmobile. Before that it was skis. We didn’t have a telephone for the first 10 years. We just had a CB radio, but they put one in for free.

About 16 years ago we decided what we really wanted to do was write books, so Jim and I started on a series of books on Jungian psychology, on Christian mysticism, on the East-West dialogue, and on the simple life. We chose those topics because they were integral with the way our life had gone. We are Catholics, and when we got together we got very interested in psychology. We have always had a fascination for Eastern religions, and we’ve done a lot of sitting.

I want to talk about wisdom from a Christian point of view. Wisdom is the Christian mystical tradition. It is the tradition of knowing God, but how do we know God? It is knowing God through our heart. It’s a reaching out and yearning for God, a yearning for union with God.

One of the reasons I feel I have to talk about wisdom in the mystical tradition is because a lot of times as Christians we grow up and find ourselves with a fifth grade education about our own Christianity. When we reach the teenage years we start doubting, and are concerned about if God exists, and what is the meaning of life, and what is my purpose in life? We look to our fifth grade education and say, "I really don’t want to go to church because the church isn’t feeding me. I go to the service, someone reads from Scripture, but it doesn’t have a deep meaning for me."

Sometimes people go to the East and get excellent answers there. But the point is why are we having this trouble with our own mystical tradition? 400 years ago there was a lot of excitement about union with God, about mysticism. You can read St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. There was a lot of enthusiasm for that.

After those mystics, everything went underground. For the last 400 years there hasn’t been a lot of interest except for maybe the second half of this century where once again you hear about mysticism a lot. People are looking around. Unfortunately a lot of times they can’t go to their church to find answers, so they are finding books or creating little groups. We just came back from a conference in St. Louis with a centering prayer group of people looking for a deeper mystical life. They sit, they have their word, they breathe, and it is very Zen-like. They are struggling, groping, trying to find people who can help them.

One of the things Jim and I have decided to do was a couple of years ago we started what we call "The Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum Newsletter." It’s free. We started it because we realized that people in general are having trouble trying to grow in their spiritual life, and so it doesn’t matter if they are from the Eastern tradition or they are Christians. They have problems with their spiritual life. We wanted people to write to us and to tell us about their own journey, and we would publish their letters anonymously because we are not interested in people getting named, but we are interested in the questions. Sometimes if we get into a situation where we don’t know a lot about it we have a little group of people who we talk to and they answer the various questions.

One kind of person in our newsletter are Christians, and they are having difficulty with their prayer life, they are having difficulty with getting deeper down. Another kind is a Christian who grew up as a Christian, found they weren’t being fed, and went to the East. Another kind is a person as a Christian who went to the East, and then after maybe 15 or 20 years, start thinking once again about their Christianity, and so they are trying to figure out how to reconnect with their Christianity, and it doesn’t mean they are eclipsing what they did in their Eastern practices. They want to take that and use it, as well, in their Christianity. But, what do they do? If they go to the parish they are not being fed. A couple of issues ago we talked about the problem of spiritual direction. What happens when you have a question? Where do you go? Who can you talk to? Who do you trust? Who will be able to understand what you have been going through all these years? That’s a real problem.

Another kind of person that we also hear from is a Christian who is following a really good, strong, meditative practice, a prayer life, trying to deepen their Christianity, and all of a sudden they start experiencing things. They start seeing blue and gold lights, and having tinglings, and what we call kundalini-like energies that have been awakened somehow, and they had had no knowledge of this.

There is a person called Philip St. Romain who is a Catholic, and he was a drug-abuse counselor. He was meditating every day, and all of a sudden all this stuff started to happen. He was writing to Jim at the time, and Jim said it sounded like kundalini. Philip started to read about it, and a lot of the symptoms started resonating with him. So he had to, by force, get interested in the Eastern side of things. We are united. There is an undercurrent of all of us being united, so these things are happening.

The point is we are trying to grow in our spiritual life, and so we formed the Forum to try to bring out questions that people usually can’t talk about, or don’t know where to go. And ironically, we are in the middle of the woods - you might say isolated - and we are getting a lot of letters saying, "I am so happy to know you are there because I feel so isolated."


Jim Arraj

Tyra and I have spent most of our lives trying to retrieve the Christian mystical tradition, or you could say the Christian metaphysical mystical tradition. That has become a very good excuse for us to go around and pester people, including some of the people in this room. Christians have a very big problem now because Christians have to retrieve their own tradition, but they can’t retrieve it in the old way. It is going to be retrieved in dialogue with Eastern religions, depth psychology, and perhaps even with another sense of the earth. That’s what we do.

Yesterday we were listening to the Dalai Lama - Tyra was filming some of it - and all of a sudden he started talking about going to Montserrat, and about a hermit who lived there on the top of a mountain. It really struck us because we had visited Montserrat in the spring and we had climbed the cliffs of Montserrat on really steep stairs, and we were trying to lug up our gear. One of the monks was taking us up to visit the hermit the Dalai Lama had visited with. We get up to the top, and there is his little house built into the side of the rock wall. We walk in, and on the wall are the oxherding pictures. It is like this dialogue is just permeating Christianity throughout the world.

It is very difficult to get back and connect into the Christian mystical tradition because, as Tyra said, the last time there was the kind of enthusiasm there is for Christian prayer and meditation, a kind of public enthusiasm in the Church, was in the 17th century, and brought on in large part by John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and others. But for a variety of reasons at the end of the 17th century it died out. It was suppressed, and it sort of went underground. Of course, there were people during all this time who were very interested in the contemplative life and lived it out, but it has only been after the Second Vatican Council that you get a public practical interest in it.

For John of the Cross wisdom meant this loving knowledge of God that is a gift of God. It is a loving, personal knowledge. It is not a conceptual thing. In fact, he is known for saying, "Nada, nada, nada." "Nothing, nothing, nothing." And going beyond all thoughts and concepts and images. But where he wants to go, and where he wants to bring people is to a very special kind of loving and personal knowledge of God.

John of the Cross was a wonderful poet, and most of his prose works which are sometimes difficult to get through are based on commentaries on his poems. His most famous one was the Spiritual Canticle where he says, "Where have you hidden, my Beloved?" And it is really a very beautiful love poem, and that’s what he is talking about.

If in your past the Christian Church has turned you off or injured you, lots of times it is the very people who are representing the church who didn’t know about their own mystical tradition. If you want to give it another chance, go to people like John of the Cross and read his poems, and try to get a sense of the Christian mystical tradition that we need to know, that tradition of wisdom, if we are going to really be able to dialogue with Buddhist wisdom. Without that we have Buddhist wisdom and practitioners, and then what looks like Christian formality and Christian abstraction, and so it’s not really a dialogue. If we can be rooted in both, then it would be a genuine dialogue.


Ruben Habito

I was born in the Philippines and in my late teens I had the joyful grace of being called to join the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, where I spent my novitiate, and then later was sent to Japan. And it was there I had the privilege of meeting Yamada Roshi, my Zen master with whom I continued to practice Zen until he died in 1989. My encounter with the spiritual exercises was my first big blue as to who I am, and how may I live this life in a way that is truly meaningful, and as it was meant to be in the light of my having been born in this earth with all other sentient beings. The spiritual exercises which is centered on this contemplation for realizing God’s love became my nourishment, and my big master key for unraveling what wisdom is all about. Wisdom is the way of looking at things from the point of view of God’s love.

Looking at stones and pebbles, or mountains and rivers, plants, trees and flowers, fellow human beings, everything around us - not as an object out there and I’m here separate from it - but from the standpoint of God’s love where what I am is also something that’s seen in God’s love. We cannot help but live with that sense of affinity with everything, and so somehow what we get from St. Francis’ spirituality, calling brother sun, sister moon, sister bird, sister flower, etc., is precisely a manifestation of that point of view of seeing everything from God’s love.

With that grace of the spiritual exercises I was sent to Japan, and then received the further grace of being able to practice Zen under Yamada Roshi. Yamada’s Zen teaching was grounded in his own experience, not a concept, doctrine or philosophy, but his own experience which he summed up in a phrase from Zen master Dogen that he had bumped into when he was reading a book on a train from Tokyo to Kamakura that said, "I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the sun, the moon, the stars. I came to realize clearly that the mind is no other than mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars." So that led to an explosion in him, that led to a burst of laughter that lasted about 48 hours, as he recalls in his own diary and a letter to a friend. (This experience is in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen under K.Y., Japanese executive.)

That experience became the fount of all that he offered to all of his students that came to him, and when I arrived in 1970 Sr. Kathleen was already there, having sat already for several years, and she became a role model for me. She was a Maryknoll sister and practiced Zen in a way that was not at all a contradiction from her being a Christian, and yet being fully in that Zen path.

As I continued to learn from Yamada Roshi and those around me, that sense of what Yamada Roshi expressed in that experience just began to also sink in, and so what I can offer is, see everything from the point of view of God’s love, or from the Zen perspective, to see one’s true self, to see the mind as mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, and so on, in the image of Kwan Yin, or Kannon.

We ask what is wisdom, or who am I, or what is my true self, and the first word in the Heart Sutra sums up what we are looking for. It is "perceiving," perceiving the world freely without any hindrance, to perceive without hindrance is to perceive things no longer with that delusion of the separation of subject and object, but precisely to see things just as they are, to see everything just as it is. The rest of the Heart Sutra gives us a hint as to the content, namely there is no eye, there is no color, and there is no act of seeing because if we see with those three elements we are dividing. But to see something no longer will divide that, but to see something just as it is.

The language that was most familiar to me was to see everything from God’s love, and so when I went to Japan and learned more about Zen practice, and also began to use Zen vocabulary from that angle, it is also very natural for me to express it in terms I just shared. Dogen Zenji points out that delusion is seeing things from the point of view of the self. Enlightenment is seeing the self from the point of view of everything. If we can simply make that turn from seeing everything from the point of view of the self, the I-me-mine, to a way wherein seeing the true self from the point of view of everything, seeing our true self from the point of view of a tree, a flower, our fellow sentient beings, then perhaps that mirror is something we no longer have to hold on to because it is already there, reflecting everything just as it is.


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