- The 2008 Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies
The Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies (SBCS) sponsored two sessions in conjunction with the 2008 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The first session addressed the topic "Cognitive Science, Religious Practices, and Human Development: Buddhist and Christian Perspectives." The second session focused on the life and legacy of Trappist monk, spiritual writer, and interfaith pioneer Thomas Merton (1915–1968).
The first session, moderated by Sandra Costen Kunz (Phillips Theological Seminary), featured five papers probing the relationship between research in the natural and social sciences and lessons from the experience of Buddhist and Christian practice: "The Body and the Mind: Buddhist Bowing and Neuroscience," presented by Paula K. Arai (Louisiana State University) and coauthored with Sascha du Lac (Salk Institute for Biological Sciences); "Who Hears? A Zen Buddhist Perspective" by Robert Aitken Roshi, founder and retired Zen master of the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu (read by Ruben Habito, Southern Methodist University); "'Your Cell Will Teach You Everything': Old Wisdom, Modern Science, and the Art of Attention" by Noreen Herzfeld (St. John's University); "Verbal Imagining: Scientific Reflection on Visual Cognition in Light of Traditional Tibetan and Christian Theologies of the Image" by Thomas Cattoi (Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley); and "Cognitive Error and Contemplative Practices: The Cultivation of Discernment in Mind and Heart" by Wesley J. Wildman (Boston University). Revised versions of three of these papers with an introductory essay by Prof. Costen Kunz are included in this issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies.
The theme for the society's second session, chaired by Alice Keefe (University of Wisconsin), was "Thomas Merton Forty Years after His Death: Buddhist and Christian Perspectives." Four presenters examined and evaluated Merton's distinctive contributions to Buddhist-Christian relations, theological reflection, and interreligious dialogue. In her paper "Self-Surrender in Merton's Writings and Contemplative Psychology," Daijaku Judith Kinst (California Institute of Integral Studies) concentrated on the place of subjective transformation in Merton's thought, describing his [End Page 143] "great gift" to the literature on the contemplative life as the "fearless" rejection of self-centeredness in the practice of prayer and spiritual formation. "Thomas Merton Meets Tibetan Buddhism" by Judith Simmer-Brown (Naropa University) shed new light on the impact of the dzogchen ("great completion") tradition on Merton's evolving spirituality, particularly as expressed in the letters, speeches, and private documents included in the posthumously published Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (1973). In "Non-Dual Wisdom as Feminine: Sophia and Prajnaparamita in Merton's Poem 'Hagia Sophia,'" Paula Hirschboeck (Edgewood College) explored suggestive parallels between Christian mystical experience and Buddhist madhyamika teaching in Merton's long, dreamlike Marian hymn from the early 1960s. Kristin Johnston Largen (Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg) concluded the session with an analysis of the role of Buddhism-inspired insights in Merton's approach to soteriological questions, especially as seen in his changing attitudes toward traditional Christian doctrines of hell, purgatory, eschatology, and the human person.
Between sessions, members and friends of the society participated in the annual SBCS/AAR field trip to a local site significant for its relevance to interdisciplinary Buddhist-Christian studies. This year members visited the Chicago Cultural Center of Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA), the Buddhist association for peace, culture, and education based on the teachings of thirteenth-century Japanese monk and reformer Nichiren Daishonin. Located at 1455 South Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago, the cultural center serves as the primary facility for SGI-USA activities in the Midwest. Mr. Guy McCloskey, senior vice president, publisher, and member of the board of directors for SGI-USA, organized the event. The evening's program included a tour of the center's award-winning architecture, an informal overview of the aims and initiatives of SGI-USA, and a delicious dinner served by members of the organization. [End Page 144]