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  • The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics
  • David G. Hackett
The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics. Edited by Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman, O.S.B. New York: Continuum, 1997. 306 pp.

Ever since the landmark meeting of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in 1968, the Christian and Buddhist contemplative communities have been building toward the kind of deeply spiritual encounter that is so ably narrated in this book. For five days in July of 1996, a pantheon of advanced spiritual practitioners, led by the Dalai Lama, met at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky to dialogue on the spiritual life. The resulting exchanges provided not only mutual aid on the spiritual journey but were themselves a spiritual path. In recounting this meeting, The Gethsemani Encounter marks a watershed in the spiritual dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. [End Page 232]

A history of interfaith contacts and the deeply spiritual character of intermonastic dialogue prepared the way for the success of this historic encounter. In 1978, ten years after the death of Thomas Merton, two dialogue commissions were created: the “Monastic Interreligious Dialogue” (MID) in North America, and the “Dialogue Inter-Monastic” (DIM) in Europe. These commissions fostered a rapid expansion in the number of nuns and monks engaged in interfaith dialogue. Christian monastics spent time living in Tibetan and Zen monasteries in the East, and Buddhist nuns and monks were guests of Christian monasteries in the West. These encounters gradually evolved into a profound discussion of the spiritual life in all its nuances and its implications for humankind.

The inspiration for the Gethsemani Encounter came from the Dalai Lama. At the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993, during a morning session on “Emptiness and Kenosis,” the Tibetan leader suggested that the conversation continue in a monastic setting. His idea was to gather a small group of mature Buddhist and Christian monastics who are teachers of spirituality. They would dialogue about the practice of spirituality and its value for the world in a setting where they could also live, meditate, and celebrate together.

A variety of Buddhists reflecting the diversity of contemporary Buddhist practices were invited to Gethsemani. These included Theravadin, Zen, and Tibetan monks from Asia and lay leaders from the emerging American Buddhist communities. Efforts were made to include women’s voices from each tradition. Most of the Buddhists who came to Gethsemani were living in Buddhist communities in the United States. The hope was that this meeting would catalyze future local encounters between Buddhist and Christian spiritual communities.

The Christian monastics were primarily drawn from Benedictine and Trappist MID board members or advisors from Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. Invited as well were the abbot general of the Trappist Order, the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Bishop Joseph Gerry, O.S.B., to represent the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The MID advisors also included some priests and lay practitioners—Catholic and Protestant—with experience in Buddhist dialogue. In the end, twenty-five Christian and twenty-five Buddhist spiritual leaders were invited to the Gethsemani Encounter by MID and the Dalai Lama.

Reading through the talks and dialogues that compose this book provides an opportunity to enter into the spiritual adventure of discovery experienced by the participants. The first part presents the twenty-five short talks that were given during morning, afternoon, and evening sessions over the four full days of the encounter. Each of these talks was intended to provide a short and insightful glimpse into the dynamics of Buddhist and Christian spirituality. For students of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, much of this material is familiar. But two elements are new: first, the variety of Buddhist and Christian perspectives that are brought to bear on such topics as “prayer and meditation” (where three different Buddhist and two Christian approaches are considered), and second, the organization of this material into six chapters that move outward from prayer to community to spirituality and society. As [End Page 233] the book progresses, there is a palpable movement away from comparative analysis for the sake...

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