San Jose, CA — INTERFAITH is arguably one of the most crucial topics of our time. Yet, for the world at large, interfaith is largely ad hoc, catch as catch can. Might Buddhism play a role, as a non-charged, level playing field for coming together? For example, in the third century before Jesus, India’s Buddhist King Ashoka welcomed all creeds to live in harmony together.
A single Buddhist is most widely known today — and thus a natural candidate for inviting dialogue among the world’s contemporary religions. Born in Tibet 75 years ago, in a family of barley farmers in northeastern Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso was named the 14th Dalai Lama when he was two years old. That made him the successor in a line of political and spiritual leaders spanning six centuries. A Nobel Peace Laureate, he has lived in exile in India since 1959. His most recent book is Towards a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together, and his recent visit to the Bay Area served as a catalyst for a vital interfaith conference.
On October 12, immediately following his teaching of Eight Verses of Training the Mind to 8,000 people at the San Jose Convention Center, a panel of 12 faith-based leaders addressed a gathering of 700 representatives from a diversity of traditions for an interfaith gathering, convened by Mark Gonnerman, director of the Aurora Forum at Stanford University.
Mutsun Ohlone Elder Ann Marie Sayers led the conference in facing the four directions, for a blessing ceremony, invoking the site as a living part of the Way of the Ohlone, the region’s indigenous peoples extending back 4000 years — and still very much here.
Prof Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, and a living avatar of the movement for interreligious dialogue, then had his say. Having initially introduced the 14th Dalai Lama to the West, decades ago, he acknowledged he was not surprised it was such a glorious day because he’s seen the Dalai Lama spread that feeling around wherever he is. Prof. Smith pointed out that while his commentary on the Eight Verses showed him as a spiritual leader, he has many roles and responsibilities.
Prof Smith praised him as a very able diplomat, making what he termed a very clear and sensible proposal in the tricky and dangerous exchange between Tibet and China. As Prof Smith put it, the Dalai Lama would be the first to vote in favor of China annexing Tibet provided China let the Tibetans pursue, continue, and practice their religious and cultural education. [As of this writing, China is proposing the elimination of use of the Tibetan language in local schools.] Prof Smith called the Dalai Lama’s proposal most sensible. He recalled he himself was born of Christian missionary parents, was educated in a Chinese college, and loves the Chinese people. But, he said, their political leadership is stuck in the mud, in what amounts to genocide.
Prof. Smith then stressed the importance of including Muslims in interreligious dialogue. He called Islam the most misunderstood of all the world’s religions, adding there’s a great deal of danger in the way misunderstandings can go.
Jewish Renewal Rabbi Lerner, founder of Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, then raised consciousness to the higher realms human speech can attain, via song. After leading everyone in a very rousing rendition of “Down By the Riverside,” he began by admitting there are so many interpretations of Judaism that there are 3000 arguments about what it really is. But it is important, he said, to study Reality.
Reality requires we reject the “realistic.” Accepting the world as is merely current amounts to idolatory. Instead, he suggested we need to shape our view of What Is as including What Can Be. Such transformation from what is to what is possible is divine. And such transformation is both inwards and outer, within one’s self and equally in the world. Challenged by the need to change economic and political reality calls for going beyond analysis based on media and religious status quo. This means not just joining together “make-nice people” — not just acknowledging each other — but working together to insist on a new way of moving forward to change the ecosystem and the economic model.
Prof. Ana Perez-Chisti, Murshida and U.S. representative of Sufi Movement International called for a recalibration of our definition of dialogue. Looking around, as on TV, we see what’s called dialogue resembling the county fair Whack-A-Mole games now played on computers: when a head pops up, or another’s perspective, it’s to be whacked down. As one remedy, she told of an 11th Sufi custom called sophbet we all can take to heart. Take an other person’s argument and win it on a higher level. To accomplish this means to listen from a nondual, limitless perspective, hear the weakness or flaw, and uplift it. To do so is to thus also raise the other person above their own limited thinking.
In her view, Sufism can be seen in terms of a vast ocean of time and space in which all faith systems are embodied as lotuses. The roots reach into the earth of creation as blossom bringing beauty and wisdom into the world. She likened Sufism to the pollen fertilizing the flowers. She also clarified that jihad in Islam is an internal battle. Only when we’ve fought our inner demons can successfully engage the real struggle of friendship and love.
Samina Sundas, founder of American Muslim Voice, geneously donated a transcript of her talk On the Concept of Compassion in Islam to Bay Citizen, which we are gladly making available online in its entirety. I’d like to quote, here, a brief story known to most Muslims, as a summary of the central compassion so essential and vital in Islam. It seems there was a woman who threw trash at Prophet Mohammad every day when he walked past her house. Then, for a few days, he walked by her house but she did not throw trash at him. He asked about her from a neighbor and learned she was ill. So he went to her house and prayed for her to heal. In time, she not only became well again, but came to accept Islam.
Limitations of space, alone, preclude summaries of the remarks and teachings from Rev. Dorsey Blake, uplifting and prophetic voice of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples; Rev. Matthew Fox, theologian of Creation Spirituality; dynamic psychologist and author Noah Levine; and Bishop Koshin Ogui, beloved leader of the Buddhist Churches of America (Jodo Shinshu).
Venerable Thupten Donyo, founder and director of the Gyuto Vajrayana Center which hosted some of the Dalai Lama’s Bay Area visit, in epitomizing the Dalai Lama’s vision also summarized the conference’s vision, as well: “a world community focused on compassionate cooperation.” Certainly, such issues as sustaining the ecosystem, ending war, eliminating poverty, and social justice all call for collective action. Religious traditions joining banners for common cause would be wonderful, indeed.
We’ve reserved the last word, in our remaining inch or two, to the gathering’s brilliant organizer, Prof Mark Gonnerman who sounded a clear call to identify and cultivate a new religious dialogue for the 21st century. While we can read about friendship in Aristotle, we need to make friends with a person from a place or a tradition with which we’re not already familiar. He asked, “How can reach out to the stranger, the other, and say something as simple as, ‘What’s your story?’ ‘What’s your life like?’ ‘What do you need?’” We need to take time to reach out and embrace this in the space of the day. We need to create conditions where can really meet each other. Ultimately, it’s those who’ve gone most deeply into their own traditions who can come out to truly meet others.
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Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism; editor of What Book!? : Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop’ translator of three books by the Korean poet Ko Un, SSN; and leads Mindfulness Fellowship in San Francisco, in the tradition of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. Gary’s homepage: http://word.to .
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[ Adapted by permission of the author from a blog in Bay Citizen, copyright 2010, Gary Gach ]