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  • Zen/Ch’an-Catholic Dialogue Explores the Path to Spiritual Maturation
  • Francis V. Tiso

The second in a four year series of dialogues between Catholics and Buddhists on the West Coast was held at Mercy Center, Burlingame, California, on the topic “Abiding in Christ; Taking Refuge in the Buddha: Then What?” The January 28–February 2, 2008, meeting was cochaired by Rev. Heng Sure of the Institute for World Religions, Berkeley, California, and John C. Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City, Utah.

In his keynote, Bishop Wester observed that one year previous (January 24–27, 2007) at the City of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, the dialogue considered the topic “Abiding in Christ; Taking Refuge in the Buddha.” The participants explored the Buddhist “Refuge” practice, entailing “taking refuge in, or relying upon, the Buddha, his Teachings, and the enlightening Community” (the “Three Jewels” of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). This was compared with the Catholic sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist). Both practices constitute the basis for entry into the spiritual life for both communities, and both continue to impact the integration of faith with daily life. “Abiding in Christ” and “Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels” are prerequisites for serious engagement with the spiritual and ethical values of Catholic Christianity and Zen/Ch’an and Vajrayana Buddhism. Since these “initiatic” practices involve personal commitment and free choice, they illuminate the heart of our previous four years of dialogue: “Walking the Bodhisattva Path / Walking the Christ Path” (2003), “Transformation of Hearts and Minds: Approaches to Precepts” (2004), “Practice: Means Toward Transformation” (2005), and “Meeting on the Path” (2006).

Although the topic under consideration in 2007 might have been considered “basic material” for the way people enter the spiritual life, the dialogue was rich in the range of topics discussed. The participants in 2007 revisited some of the great dyads of the spiritual life, such as the distinction between cataphatic and apophatic spirituality, between the active life and the contemplative life, between attainment of wisdom and the practice of compassion, between verbalization and ineffability, between experience and that which transcends even the category of experience. Moreover, the group expressed a great interest in exploring more deeply the subject of ethical responsibility in transmitting these teachings to students and communities. Transmitting [End Page 145] the teachings involves both accumulating a substantial body of knowledge and also having a personal commitment to the transformative process.

Giving emphasis to this dialogue’s long-term commitment to transformation, this year’s theme builds upon previous efforts to understand “abiding and refuge.” It is therefore in this light that the discussion raises the question: “Then what?” What does a Christian do, what does a Buddhist do with his or her life, once initiation has been completed? In order to answer this question, the dialogue took a step forward from last year’s discussion of Christian and Buddhist initiation into the terrain of spiritual progress, maturation, mentoring, and guidance. In order to bring an experiential dimension into the work of dialogue, there was a willingness to take the risk of introducing two afternoons of experiential contemplative practice. In this way, the methods available to Buddhist practitioners and the Christian faithful can be seen from the perspective of lived experience and commitment.

The group quickly raised questions directed towards making sense of what is called “spiritual progress” or “transformation.” What do these terms actually mean in real human lives? How do the participants embody these processes? How do they discern the authenticity—or lack thereof—in both practices and practitioners? How do they hand the practices, and the knowledge about spiritual growth, to others? How also do they and their communities train those whose ministry it will be to lead and guide others?

Resonating with the insightful comments (Osservatore Romano, December 15, 2007) of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, this year’s dialogue pursued an “exchange of our own spiritual experiences.” One participant emphasized: “Sharing each others’ religious practices really is the heart of this dialogue for me; this is where I experience our underlying unity.” Two practical strategies were employed in order to facilitate this exchange. The first strategy was...