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MEETING, PRACTICE, AND MEMORY:
What Monastic Interreligious Dialogue
Contributes to Monastic Culture

Patrick Henry, PhD

Recalling that Arnold Toynbee named the encounter of Buddhism and Christianity the most significant event of the twentieth century, I decided to see what other candidates there were, so I typed "most significant event of twentieth century" into Google.com. World War II is the clear winner, with scientific developments, whether the Wright Brothers or making an atomic bomb or landing on the moon, forming a cluster in second place. The Russian Revolution has a few votes, and the invention of cinema is on the list. A particularly thought-provoking suggestion is the invention of fertilizer. A particularly not-thought-provoking proposal is the death of Princess Diana. The Second Vatican Council is named, and Pope John Paul II is credited with proposing the establishment of the state of Israel as the most significant event of the twentieth century. Google does bring up the Toynbee remark. I think the Buddhism/Christianity interface remains a contender. And the people who live most familiarly at that interface are people like you -- indeed, some of them are you.

We think of the millennium between Saint Dunstan and us as a long time, but a thousand years are a thousand years whenever they are, and it was as long a stretch from the Buddha to Benedict as it is from Dunstan to us. As a purely astonishing fact, it's hard to top the cultural tenacity of monasticism, and when Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns get together, time both stands still and explodes. Millennia meet. Monastic Interreligious Dialogue is like a particle accelerator, in which forces interact to reveal primordial conditions, some fundamental features of human nature and human community.

My involvement with Monastic Interreligious Dialogue over the past decade has been a highlight of my intellectual and spiritual life, and while I could talk theoretically, as PhDs are carefully trained to do, I will reflect personally this morning, in part, at least, because you can't spend a lot of time with monastic folks and get away with theory. Practice is the beginning, practice is the middle, and practice is the end of living and knowing both Benedictine and Buddhist, and practice as the key was as revolutionary in fifth-century BCE India and sixth-century CE Italy as in twenty-first-century CE America. From one perspective, monasticism is supremely countercultural. But taking a long view, we can say that everything else is countercultural, monasticism being the one more-or-less constant through the whole story.

I begin my reflections in an odd place, with John Henry Newman's recollection, in Apologia pro vita sua, of the intellectual turmoil he experienced in 1841 when his famous Tract 90 ignited a firestorm of controversy. The Tract registers movement in his own thought on the relation between Anglican and Catholic doctrine, though it would be four more years before his conversion. What fascinates me about Newman's recollection is how familiar it sounds, and how germane it is to the encounter between religions: "How was I any more to have absolute confidence in myself? how was I to have confidence in my present confidence? how was I to be sure that I should always think as I thought now?"1 In 1841 Newman was afraid that he might not always think as he thought then, yet four years later he would pen one of the most liberating lines ever written: "In a higher world, it is otherwise, but here below, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often."2 I contend that this seismic shift in Newman's sensibility, from horror of change to reveling in it, provides a clue to the significance of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue for Benedictine culture and, by extension, for the cultural life of the larger world.

I'm mixing metaphors rather haphazardly here, but I don't apologize for doing so, because the realities I'm talking about have so many dimensions, so many valences. I just used seismic shifts, and now I switch to something quieter, more intimate. Monastic Interreligious Dialogue is like a sitar string which, when plucked in the vicinity of the strings of the Rule of Benedict, elicits vibrations that create wonderful harmonies, as is demonstrated on page after page of Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict.3 But for my purposes today I want to underscore a resonance with what I've always thought the most precious sentence in the Rule, chapter 73's acknowledgement that it is a "little Rule for beginners." For, you see, the encounter with Buddhist monks and nuns has been an occasion for Benedictines to move from one stage of beginning to another, from fear of the new to embracing it, to move toward perfection by changing and changing often.

Pope Paul VI did better than he knew when he assigned the initial task of dialogue between Catholics and persons of other religious traditions to Benedictines and Buddhist monastics. He was clearly aware of the many parallels between the monastic ways of life. But I suspect he wasn't thinking about the way Benedictines, more than any other Christians, are capable of rootedness and far-ranging adventure at the same time. In one of his poems Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B., has given us a snapshot of this ironic ability, an image that I think could come only from more than half a century of seeking God after the monastic manner of life: "All our truths need bungee cords."4

Another way of thinking about Christian truth, very different from bungee-cord theology, was expressed by a dear friend and mentor of mine this way: "When I as a Christian sit down in dialogue with someone from another tradition, I know I won't learn anything new." This was not as benighted a statement as it sounds, at least coming from the one who said it, because it presupposes a broad and deep understanding of what constitutes Christian knowledge. But it is not a statement a Benedictine would make. Adherents of the Rule, who are always at the beginning, expect to learn new things from just about everybody, even from others who are more novice than they; after all, Benedict instructs the abbot to pay particular attention to the youngest in the community (chapter 3).

I believe the Benedictine doesn't just expect to learn new things as in "new information" or "new facts"; the Benedictine expects to learn new things about God, and new ways to think about things both old and new about God. To seek God after the monastic manner of life is truly to seek; it's not just digging around in what you already know. And you are not afraid to seek God in the company of folks who don't talk about God at all, because you know that God isn't just in talk and sometimes talk is the very last place you should look for God. Practice, practice, practice. Indeed, if "worship and work" ever goes stale as the Benedictine motto, you might adopt or adapt a remark of legendary golfer Gary Player: "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

Eight years ago I had a genuinely unique privilege, an assignment that I can with confidence say no one in the prior history of the world ever had. I was asked by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue to be the interface between the fifty monastics, half of them Christian and half of them Buddhist, and the hundred observers at the Gethsemani Encounter, a week-long joint exploration of spiritual traditions and life, where papers were read but, more important, prayers were prayed and meditations meditated and silence kept and pilgrimages walked through the cemetery and trees planted. One of my responsibilities was to meet with the observers and gather their questions to relay to the monastic participants.

I recently pulled the sheet of questions from my file, and found much material to ponder in relation to monastic culture. There are multitudes outside monasteries who are looking to you for guidance, and just as Benedict's Dharma has mirrored your tradition back to you in a fresh way from a Buddhist slant, so do the puzzlements of observers at the Gethsemani Encounter, who were fascinated by what might be happening when Buddhists and Christians really get to know one another, serve as hints for what Monastic Interreligious Dialogue means for Benedictine culture.

The most striking feature of what the observers wondered about is their recognition that experience would provide the only satisfactory answers. They didn't want theoretical speculation. Rather, they asked: "What is the practical difference between the Buddhist focus on self-perfection and the Christian aim to grow in likeness to Christ?" Or, to take the shadow side: "In the name of religion much suffering has been inflicted on humanity. How do you deal with the legacy of harm your tradition has done?" Note that the monastics were not asked, "How does your tradition deal with the legacy of harm?" but "How do you deal with it?" And the most personal question of all, cutting through all abstractions, getting to the heart of the matter:

We would like to hear from the dialoguers' personal experience. What do you do when you pray, and how does it feel? Did you have a moment at which the experience "clicked," when you realized "this is it"? Have you had an experience in which you realized you were hitting common ground with the experience of people in other religions, when you could say to one another, "I feel my prayer is meeting your prayer"?

The Gethsemani Encounter highlighted, italicized, bold-faced a truth that outsiders instinctively understood: monastic culture really is a culture; it is about formation of whole persons; it is about recognition and realization more than it is about argument and logic; it is testimony that Keats was at least close to right when, in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," he made beauty and truth interchangeable (though both the Buddha and Benedict acknowledge that there is much, in the monastery as well as outside, that is neither true nor beautiful).

The questions occasionally were more abstract -- I categorized them as "Theoretical (comparative)" -- but even they had a practical edge. "How does each tradition try to make the case for asceticism in today's hedonistic, instant-gratification culture?" And we asked the monastics whether they would "compare their frustrations -- Buddhist frustrations and Christian frustrations -- in the effort to make their messages effective in the larger society"? Given Western discomfort with the inherited notion of sin and fascination with Eastern alternatives, in one of the questions, which on the surface sounds like it was lifted from an undergraduate introductory religious studies course exam, you can hear the rumblings of crosscultural tectonic plate encounter: "How are good karma and bad karma and the mitigation of bad karma similar to and different from virtue and sin and forgiveness?" I suppose the fundamentalist answers would be, from the Christian side, that to talk of karma is sin, and from the Buddhist side, that to be burdened by the notion of sin is the result of bad karma.

But monastics don't waste time in such carping; rather, they wonder what they can learn from each other, and the observers wondered how much of that was happening in both directions: "Is Buddhism being changed by its contact with Christianity as Christianity is being affected by contact with Buddhism (e.g., through the adoption/adaptation of meditation techniques)? And what does it mean to be a Catholic practicing Buddhist practices?" These questions would have made the Newman of "How can I be confident?" shiver, but the Newman of "to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often" would have found them congenial. He might even have welcomed a conversation with Diana Eck, who on the last day of the Encounter etched a fundamental question as sharply as it can be put: "I am so well aware as a Christian -- as we bow deeply in the choir and talk about that which is, which was, which ever shall be -- that it is precisely that language that our Buddhist brothers and sisters pull out from under our feet, in some way, as they invite us into reflection on change, on the impermanence of the world in which we live, so that we might change it and ourselves for the better."5 I would add that it's when the ground is suddenly not there that the Benedictine is especially glad to have truths attached to bungee cords.

The hundred observers were a mixed lot, though as was to be expected in the American context, there was a predominance of Christians, and they had some probing questions for the Buddhists. "Are the issues raised by feminism being addressed in Buddhism? Is women's experience changing Buddhism, in theory and/or in practice?" A radical question, to be sure, but not as radical as this: "We would like to hear an ecumenical discussion among the Buddhist participants. Do different Buddhist traditions (e.g., those that depend on classical texts and those that do not) result in different experiences of Buddhism? Do all Buddhist traditions acknowledge the full authenticity of all the others?" I frankly don't recall whether either of these questions was addressed directly by the participants, but that doesn't matter for my purpose here, since my point is to illustrate the quality of cultural awareness and probing that comes naturally when monastics are sharing their experiences of the spiritual life, or rather, of life itself.

This talk is being constructed in real time -- that is, when I started writing it I didn't know where it would go. And what I have just said brings me to what I most want to say about the significance for Benedictine culture of meeting, practice, and memory in the encounters that are orchestrated by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. When Benedictine and Buddhist monastics meet, they practice their life, and the memories that are evoked in both communities -- memories that extend back for centuries and centuries -- are reminders that a distinction between "spiritual life" and "life" is artificial.

No greater spiritual worth resides inherently in scholarship than in woodworking or kitchen service. This might seem a counterproductive thing for me to say when the tradition of Benedictine scholarship and study seems under threat. But it is precisely the ordinariness of scholarship -- its being a labora that is no closer to ora than is any other task -- that guarantees its survival. As Abbot Jerome Theisen, O.S.B., of blessed memory once said to another abbot, "I'll trade you three theologians for one plumber." In the brief introductory paragraph to the list of questions the observers at Gethsemani presented to the participants we said, "We recognize we are enormously privileged to be attending an event that is a very big deal (but of course no big deal at all!)." That "no big deal at all" has a characteristic Buddhist ring, but its resonance with "little Rule for beginners," and of course with the steps of humility (chapter 7), means it is also a Benedictine insight.

I have for a long time thought that God has a sense of humor, and not just the sort suggested by a child's question, "Dear God, Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?"6 No, I mean the sort that is hidden in Benedict's restrictions on laughter, because there are few things funnier than the disorientation of someone who visits a monastery expecting to find a bunch of holy people doing spiritual things. Most Benedictines, I suspect, would claim -- or at least would like to claim -- as their own this wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh: "The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!"7 (It is possible to read "No one will be excused from kitchen service" [chapter 35] as meaning drudgery is an equal opportunity employer, but what Nhat Hanh's Zen insight illuminates is that no one should be excluded from an arena where God can be found.)

The significance of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue for Benedictine culture is in fact a huge paradox -- which is hardly surprising, since paradox is the natural habitat for the profoundly human. The most searching question asked by the observers at Gethsemani is finally unanswerable, because the very posing of the question begs the further question of how you could ever know whether your answer is correct: "Is it possible to understand the other without experiencing her/his reality?" I suspect that each of us here has at least once wanted to scream "No you don't!" when someone has tried to comfort us with "I know just how you feel." So, we can't ever be sure that we understand the other.

But we can be confident, I think, that the encounter with the other enhances our understanding of ourselves. In a wry, all-too-true observation, C. S. Lewis's Screwtape, the senior devil, advises his nephew, the junior devil Wormwood, on how to capture someone: "You must bring [the patient] to a condition in which he can practise self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office."8

The literature of ecumenism is peppered with acknowledgments that dialogue has increased participants' understanding of and appreciation for their own traditions. The change that occurs often doubles back on itself, turning out to be a deeper commitment to what you started with. On the final day at Gethsemani some of us were asked to comment on what had most struck us. I can recall what I said only because it got recorded and is in the Gethsemani Encounter book: "For me, the question, `What was most surprising here?' had its threshold set by [Zen abbot] Norman Fischer's remark that he had discovered here how much Christians love Jesus. I found that an extraordinary statement! I too felt that the depth, the sincerity and the persuasion with which people talked about their love of Jesus was something that I have not heard in any Christian setting at that degree in quite a long time."9

Sister Rosemary Rader, O.S.B., in her ABA presidential address two years ago setting the theme for this Conference, cited Jean Leclercq's conviction, stated in his classic book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that "if the great ideas of the past are to remain young and vital, each generation must, in turn, think them through and rediscover them in their pristine newness."10 Monastic Interreligious Dialogue has provided for you an extraordinarily effective means for that thinking through and rediscovery. At the head of the list of fresh insights I would put the way the Buddhists of Benedict's Dharma noticed how positive Benedict is about human nature and its prospects. As I wrote at the end of the introductory chapter, called "The Trellis": "Neither the Buddha nor Benedict was gloomy, and Buddhists reflecting on the Rule help to illuminate the ancient and tenacious -- though often submerged -- Christian understanding that our fundamental nature is not darkness but light. Benedict, like the Buddha, wants us to wake up."11

You Benedictines by your very DNA are predisposed to adventure, to expecting that you won't always think as you think now, and while you know, as Father Kilian has stated perfectly, if I may say so, in his poem "Perfection, Perfection,"12 that perfection is not a goal but a trap -- hence you don't expect change to take you all the way -- you are connoisseurs of change. You cast your lot (or do your bungee jump) with the Newman of 1845 -- "to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." Benedictines are credited with saving civilization in the Middle Ages by the patient copying of manuscripts. The stage has been set in our time by the relentless encounter of customs and religions and languages and worldviews, in face of which many people are afraid and respond by losing heart or becoming defensive, even shrill. I'm counting on you to help save civilization in the twenty-first century by your example of a culture of trust, not fear.

As I think about the overall effect of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue for the perpetuation and flourishing of Benedictine culture, I suggest that you make one emendation to the Rule: chapter 55, on "Clothing and Footwear," should add to a monk's necessities, after "two cowls and two tunics," "one bungee cord."

 

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1 Apologia pro vita sua, ed. by David J. DeLaura, Norton Critical Editions (New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1968) ch. 2, p. 79.

2 An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), I.1.7 (New York: Image Books 1960) 63.

3 Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict, ed. by Patrick Henry, with contributions from Norman Fischer, Joseph Goldstein, Judith Simmer-Brown, Yifa, and David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B.; a new translation of the Rule by Abbot Patrick Barry, O.S.B.; and an introduction to the Rule by Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B. (New York: Riverhead Books 2001).

4 In the poem entitled "`Then it is finished, done?'" in Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B., Swift, Lord, You Are Not (Collegeville, MN: Saint John's University Press 2003) 26.

5 In Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman, O.S.B., eds., The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company 1999) 262.

6 "Children's Questions to God" <www.txc.net.au/~mapie/childrensquestions.htm>.

7 Thich Nhat Hanh, ed. by Arnold Kotler, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books 1991) 26.

8 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Publishing 1974) 16.

9 The Gethsemani Encounter 266.

10 The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, trans. by Catharine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press 1961) 44.

11 Benedict's Dharma 6.

12 Swift, Lord, You Are Not 34-35.

 

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