The first Gethsemani Encounter took place in 1996, at Gethsemani Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton, the well-known monk and writer, lived for twenty-seven years. That this first large international meeting of Christian and Buddhist contemplatives took place there was no accident. In the late 1960s, Merton met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India, and the two made a strong connection. At the 1996 gathering, I had been astonished by the Christian monastic practice of daily recitation of the Psalms—passionate and sometimes violent poems. How in the world, I’d asked the Christians, could the recitation of such stuff serve as the centerpiece of your spiritual practice? This question opened up the meeting, as the monks poured out their hearts about their practice. I was moved but still not convinced, so I began looking closely at the Psalms. That eventually led to my own translations, published this year by Penguin, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms.
The Second Gethsemani Encounter, held last April, built on the 1996 discussion: from the start it was intimate, frank, and practice-oriented. About sixty monastics attended, including representatives from Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Among the notable Buddhists were Abbot Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York; Joseph Goldstein of Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts; Ajahn Amaro of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California; Ven. Samu Sunim of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, Chicago; Judith Simmer-Brown of Naropa University; Bhikkuni Thubten Chodron of Sravasti Abbey in Missouri; and Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Abbess of San Francisco Zen Center. There were many Christian monastics, including the board and advisors to Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, the sponsoring organization, and several invited guests.
The theme of the Encounter’s discussions was suffering, chosen not only because it is so important in both Buddhism and Christianity but also because it touches on social issues that go beyond theology and the contemplative life. Each day began with early morning sitting meditation and included special Buddhist and Christian rituals. In addition, all were invited to participate with the monks of Gethsemani in choir, as well as at Mass.
This time it was the Mass that fascinated me. I found the solemn ritual of sacrifice and redemption, so impressively performed by many concelebrating priests, startling for its powerful emotion. The sadness of it all, with its emphasis on and valorization of suffering, had echoes in our meetings, as over and over again our discussions of suffering brought out the Christian message that to suffer on behalf of others is itself the path, the imitation of Christ. Buddhism seems to proceed from the opposite point of view—that there is suffering, but that suffering, squarely faced, can be ended. This is of course a very complicated issue, and our discussions circled around it throughout the week. The bodhisattva and Christ may be quite close in their relationship to suffering. Still, I came away with the impression that in Christianity suffering is its own reward, while in
Buddhism, happiness, even in the midst of suffering, is emphasized.
One of the Christian monastics told me an astonishing story of a Japanese Zen roshi, a tough, militaristic type, who once attended a Mass. Not realizing that only Catholics were welcome to receive communion, the roshi followed the others and was given the wafer and wine by a startled priest, who did not know what else to do. Returning to his seat, the roshi suddenly burst into tears. When the monastic asked him what had happened, the roshi finally managed to say, “intense experience of selfless love.” This is a beautiful story—or legend—and conveys the feeling deeply believing Christians have for the Eucharist.
My experience of the Mass was powerful enough that I could imagine something like this actually happening.
Although our discussions always touched on the problems of the world, they kept circling back to this question of suffering, the fundamental root of which, we agreed, is spiritual, and the cure for which, therefore, must be some form of spiritual practice.
In our concluding reflections, Father Leo Lefebure of Fordham University and I, inspired by the intimacy of the meetings, both spoke of the transforming power of friendship. I issued a challenge to all of us to find ways to move our institutions to action so that we might better bring whatever spiritual gifts we have out into the world. Father Leo pointed out that the task of healing the world’s wounds—and our own—is “absolutely impossible!” But spiritual practice has always been impossible, and that is what makes it real. ▼
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