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  • Buddhist-Catholic Retreat/Dialogue
  • John Borelli

During the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies’ 1996 Conference at DePaul University, a working group on Buddhist-Catholic relations met over four days to review the past thirty years and to discuss future possibilities, including national-level meetings between Buddhist and Catholic representatives. A sizable number attended the sessions, which studied the involvement of the Holy See (the Vatican), various exchanges sponsored by monastics, including the Gethsemani Encounter that occurred the week before (July 22–27, 1996), relations in various U.S. dioceses, and cooperation between certain Buddhist and Catholic groups. One notable recommendation for the future was to hold meetings in retreat centers or similar environments so that designated times for spiritual practice would complement conversations on specific topics. The working group’s sponsor was a committee of Catholic diocesan ecumenical/interreligious staff and historians of religions, the Faiths in the World Committee, which has met annually since 1982 serving the National Association of Diocesan Officers (NADEO).

Several participants in the working group had attended meetings of the longest-running Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in the United States on a diocesan level—the Los Angeles Catholic-Buddhist Dialogue. This group began meeting in 1989 under the combined leadership of the Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara and Msgr. Royale Vadakin and had already published one report (“Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue: An Early Journey,” Origins 20, 44 [4/11/91]). A few weeks after the 1996 Conference, the L.A. dialogue invited the Faiths in the World Committee to consider a joint project to bring Catholics and Buddhists together in the Los Angeles area for some sort of extended dialogue. One goal of the project would be to provide an opportunity for members of the L.A. dialogue to share their experience with interested persons living elsewhere in the United States.

Several members of the NADEO Faiths in the World Committee had also attended the Gethsemani Encounter (see “The Gethsemani Encounter,” edited by Mitchell and Wiseman, Continuum, 1997) and wanted to host something similar to initiate Buddhist-Catholic relations on a national level and to inspire other members of NADEO to attempt Buddhist-Catholic relations in their regions of the country. With sound advice from Prof. Donald Mitchell, a member of the NADEO committee, and the capable assistance of Dr. Michael Kerze, serving on the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, as well as Fr. Francis X. [End Page 191] Mazur of the Diocese of Buffalo, cochair of the Faiths in the World Committee, a decision was made to hold a retreat/dialogue in early October 1998 for up to sixty persons—thirty Buddhists and thirty Catholics. Serra Retreat in Malibu was reserved from Thursday afternoon, October 1, to Sunday noon, October 4. Funding was provided from both Buddhist and Catholic sources. Joint Buddhist-Catholic planning for the event took place at meetings of the L.A. Dialogue.

Approximately one-third of the fifty-seven participants were or had been affiliated with the Los Angeles Dialogue. Among Buddhists at this retreat/dialogue were: Theravadins (affiliated with Sri Lankan and Thai lineages), Jodo Shin-shu (particularly the Buddhist churches in the United States), members from the Vietnamese lineage of Zen, two Chinese Buddhists, and persons from “new Buddhist groups” (Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai). Bishop Thomas Costello of Syracuse copresided with the Ven. Ratanasara, and a member of the staff of the National Council of Churches also attended. Catholics in attendance represented twelve dioceses, and Catholics and Buddhists attended as partners from eight of these. Participants were urged to come as partners, and the planners insured that each participant was paired in a Buddhist-Catholic dyad for certain periods of individual discussions.

At the opening session, Ven. Ratanasara and Prof. Mitchell spoke about the journey of dialogue that had brought all together for the weekend retreat. The schedule listed paired presentations on spirituality and life, spirituality and individual practice, concepts of dharma and theology, and social engagement and models for cooperation. Speakers and facilitators included: Dr. Heidi Singh, Bishop Costello, Sr. Margaret Mary Funk, Al Albergate, Ven. Karuna Dharma, Dr. Kerze, Prof. David Kalupahana, Fr. Leo Lefebure, Sr. Joan Chatfield, Alan Badiner, Rev. Kusala Ratna...

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