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  • Gethsemani II:Catholic and Buddhist Monastics Focus on Suffering
  • Thomas Ryan, CSP

Approximately twenty Benedictine, Trappist, and Camaldolese men and women monastics met 13-18 April 2003 with an equal number of Buddhist monastics at the Trappist Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky for five days of dialogue on the causes of suffering. The encounter, Gethsemani II, was a sequel to a similar 1996 meeting at the monastery made famous by the monk Thomas Merton, a noted twentieth-century contemplative and peace activist who died in 1968. Merton's friendship with the Dalai Lama served as seminal inspiration for these two Buddhist-Christian dialogues. In a ritual at the opening of the Gethsemani II meeting, the participants, joined by a few advisors and observers to the dialogue, hung a wreath of flowers around the cross marking Merton's grave.

Each day speakers from both sides initiated a conversation on a particular cause of suffering, such as greed and consumerism, personal and structural violence, sickness and aging. "I do not do well at conferences, and I came prepared to be bored," said John Daido Loori, abbot of the Zen Mountain monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY, on day three, "but the level of honesty and depth of sharing in these exchanges has ripped open my heart." It is not possible in this forum to synthesize the penetrating reflections and stories on suffering offered by the participants. What may be even more important is the window offered by this dialogue into the dynamics of interfaith encounter no matter where it takes place.

By sharing times of prayer, talk, meals, and rituals appropriate to each tradition, the participants became friends. They came for one thing—to talk about suffering—and in the process found another: an experience of community. They began each conversation with the musical and meditative interlude of a recorder, but the openness and sensitivity of the conversation itself became the real music. They didn't solvea single problem, but they kindled a vital force—friendship—with which to confront problems together in the future. Each brought passion for their own tradition, the gospel on the one hand and the dharma on the other, and each ended by recognizing in the other a powerful resource for healing the world.

Evident in this dialogue was the emergence of a Euro-American Buddhist voice, deeply respectful of the Asian tradition inherited, yet willing to think creatively about possible bridge points of understanding, of comparison, of ways of reformulating set [End Page 249] patterns of saying things so as to better get at possible common meanings. One example of this will suffice. Suffering is at the heart of the Buddha's teachings in the Four Noble Truths, the first teachings he gave after his experience of enlightenment. First, all existence is dukkha, unsatisfactory and filled with suffering. Second, dukkha arises from tanha, a craving or clinging, which means a constant effort to find something permanent and stable in a transient world. Third, dukkha can cease totally, and this is nirvana. Fourth, this can be reached by following the Eightfold Path described as "right" or samma: right understanding, right directed thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. In short, the first three wisdom sayings relate to the existence, the cause, and the cessation of suffering. The fourth offers a clearly laid out plan for liberation from suffering.

The Christian approach could be typified in Pope John Paul II's 1984 Apostolic Letter "On the Meaning of Christian Suffering," which was distributed to all the participants. In reflecting on Jesus nailed to the cross, the pope observes that "in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the resurrection. This means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ's cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open, to the working of the salvific powers of God offered humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering. . . and wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self" (p...