Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Buddhists Are Coming!

The place is very quiet right now. The silence is deep. The food is vegetarian (and good!). We have no empty rooms this weekend. The guesthouse is full of Buddhists.

It would actually be more accurate to say that the guesthouse is full of people practicing Buddhist meditation.

I happen to know for a fact that the group includes Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, at least one member of the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Jews and Buddhists of several different traditions. I know this because the teacher who is conducting this weekend is also my teacher and I have been a member of his Wednesday night group (or Sangha) for going on 10 years now. They have come because of Jose (the leader) and to practice Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. I've known and shared my life with a lot of these people for a long time.

I know enough about the readership of this blog at this point to know that there are likely to be readers who find this mingling of people and traditions inspiring. And there are some who find it just ordinary - the way things ought to be. And there are some who will find it disturbing, or even shocking. There is at least one person here this weekend who had to do a lot of soul-searching before she decided that a practicing Christian could do "this sort of thing."

A friend of mine has a great fondness for the culture of the early Middle Ages in Spain when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in great comfort. She likes to imagine conversations in coffee houses on long hot afternoons, when people shared their traditions and learned from the traditions of others. Certainly there is plenty of evidence that there was enough sharing in that culture to influence all three of the religions pretty deeply. I personally have an interest in the early years of Christian monasticism in the deserts of North Africa. In those days, the principal urban center of that part of the world was Alexandria, and there was a large community of Hindu monks living there at the time. Did Christian monasticism develop completely independently of any conversation with the Hindu monks who were their neighbors? Do we really think that they never got together to spend an afternoon talking about how to do this thing? I think that is unlikely, but that story remains to be told at this time in history.

In this part of the United States such interchange is a fact of life. In easy driving distance of this monastery, even with gas prices as they are, there are praying communities of several different kinds of Christians - Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Ecumenical, Eastern Orthodox. There are Buddist communities from several different traditions of Zen and from other traditions - Therevada, Chinese, Korean, and several of the Tibetan schools. There are Hindu Ashrams and Jewish conference centers. And if you want to drive as far as Virginia there is even a Bon monastery (Bon is the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, and they have a very deep and formless form of meditation). There's lots of sharing back and forth. I have a friend who is a senior member of the community at Zen Mountain. Periodically he calls to talk about various community dilemmas and how we go about sorting them out. And though we don't do exactly the same thing when we sit down on our mats, we meditate together quite comfortably and naturally. We all recognize the search that each of us are on. The centrifugal force that draws us all together is quite strong in this area.

The centripetal force - the one that pushes us apart - is pretty strong at this point in history, too. Everyone has stories about how their group was injured by Them - whoever They were. Lurid tales appear regularly about how Christians massacred Muslims during the Crusades. Rather less is told at this time about how the Muslims got their Middle Eastern lands from the Christians and Jews, some of whom had been living there for hundreds, and in the case of the Jews, thousands of years, but that isn't a pretty story either. There aren't any Caananites still around, so far as I know, but if there were, they would be telling terrible tales about how the Jews took their land from them. All of these people, if asked, will say that God told them to do it. Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, Serbia, Mississippi, California - they all have terrible stories to be told.

And of course the voices are raised about the dangers of intermingling of faiths, of the loss of our traditions. We have to be very careful, so it is said, not to give the impression that they are as good, or as unique, or as possessed of salvation as we are.

Well, I just have to testify that I am fairly learned in the ways of Theravada Buddhism at this point. I have come to know it well and practice it deeply. And it has never been anything but a blessing to my Christian walk. The uniqueness of Christ and of what he offered to the world and what he offers to me is very plain to me. What I have found is that my Christian life has been refined and deepened by my encounter with the East. I have found in Buddhist methods of meditation a precision and directness that makes Christian meditation more accessible, especially as Christian forms of meditation never developed in quite the same way. A lot of the Christian contemplative tradition nearly died out in the years of the Enlightenment and the times afterwards, and it is just now really beginning to be restored in the lives of a significant number of Christian practitioners. In the lives of not a few of us, it is contact with religions other than our own that has made this restoration possible. I now regularly teach conferences and retreats on the ways of Christian meditation. I would not be doing this if it were not for my immersion in the ways of Buddhist meditation. (Actually it's a great story - it happened when the teacher of a Buddhist meditation retreat canceled out and my friend Mary and I had to fill in, and years later, we're still at it.)

Contact with someone different from yourself does not have to rob you of your identity. It can, in fact, lead you to greater depth in the discovery of who you are. Anyone who ever had a friend or a spouse knows something about this truth. Yes, we need to be careful of our boundaries, and we need to be certain of our own identity. But with our care and certainty need also to come openness. And this openness can lead us to parts of ourselves that we never dreamed of.

Jose, the teacher leading this weekend's retreat, is an agnostic about God. And Jose has taught me much about God and my relationship with God. Such is the mystery of love - human and divine. The spirit of Buddha and what he taught is very strong here this weekend. And so is the spirit of Christ, to whom this place belongs and in whom this community lives. People are being moved by both. And God will lead them as God chooses.


lukacs said...

Father Prior, how do you reconcile your Christian faith, and its positing of a God and a soul, with the Theravadan notions of anicca and anatta?

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

lukacs, you are assuming that I want to reconcile them. I don't. I want to leave them as two different things. Just like I don't feel any need to reconcile the 4 different accounts of Jesus given us in the Gospels - some of which is clearly unreconcilable, not to mention other stuff in the Bible. I just happen not to need to have it tied up neatly. Different people see things differently. To me that is not a problem.

Margaret said...

As one of the retreat participants this past weekend, I want to say that the food was OUTSTANDING (not just good). More importantly, the genuine warmth and spirit of your monestary was a joy to share. Thank you.

Mary Eleanor Hill said...

Well, Bede, I finally got caught up on all the news. My prayers for Michael, whom I knew and loved when he was here in Toronto, and Bernard, whom I didn't know at all, will go up.
The Buddhists - well, I have had a long time fascination for the practices and writings of Buddhism. I found a great insight into Christianity reading Dom Aelred Gramham's Zen Catholicism. Can't believe that it was 40 years ago I read it.
The best thing about Buddhist meditation is that there is nothing material to it. I truly works on the heart and not the head - that has been my battle. I thank God that the Spirit led me to read a biography of the Dali Lama when I was 15-16. Buddist meditation has expanded myself so that tolerance and acceptance is easier and accepted in the heart of this journeying soul....

Mary Eleanor Hill said...

Well, Bede, no job change, no packing to move. Makes life a little easier.
I would have loved to have been at WP while the Buddhists were in residence. There must have been a deep sense of one-ness there.
I read Dom Aelred Graham's Zen Catholicism many years ago. I think that it was like 1966 or 67. I maintained an interest and connection with Buddhist literature most of my life.
I have always thought that Christianity and Buddhism have so much in common when you discuss spirituality. Love and respect being one of the core principles of both "religions". It is good to know the heart of other meditation techniques. There is nothing that cannot be learnt across cultural, religious and social boundaries.

lukacs said...

Father Prior, your point is well taken. I asked in part because I have had some difficulty on the other side of that sort of relationship; when I sat with Burmese monks in the Mahasi Sayadaw school of Vipassana here in New Jersey, they were very firm in declaring that there was no God and no soul, and holding on to such concepts would prove to be untanable in the practice of Vipassana. I ended up having to look elsewhere for direction (specifically to the teachers under Fr. Robert Kennedy SJ, a priest and Zen "roshi.") I imagine that your own teacher's agnosticism toward God made your more open-ended approach to these two traditions more tenable. Thanks for your kind response.

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

lukacs - thanks for the fuller context. I certainly agree that I wouldn't have stayed in that particular group. Vipassana just encourages you to investigate and to follow what you find. They are right in saying that a dogmatic approach is a bar to effective meditation. What they don't see, from my point of view, is that their dogmatism is just as much of a bar as believing in God. I certainly have had plenty of experiences with Buddhists who tell me that they have no dogma, and then start being dogmatic about it!