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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 197-201

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An Interview with Donald Mitchell and James Wiseman

The 2002 Fred Streng Book Award has been given to Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman for their edited collection, The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics. Donald W. Mitchell is professor of comparative philosophy at Purdue University and a member of the editorial advisory board of Buddhist-Christian Studies. James Wiseman is a member of the Benedictine community of St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington, D.C., and is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America. Following is an edited interview with both.


How long have Buddhist and Christian monastics been in dialogue?

In 1978 the Benedictine Confederation founded what is now named the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) in order to develop intermonastic dialogue, especially with Buddhism. MID has been in dialogue with Buddhism in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. Numerous MID spiritual exchanges and hospitality programs have taken place between Buddhist and Christian monastics over the years.

How did the Dalai Lama get involved?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama met with Thomas Merton in 1968, and from then on has been interested in Christian monasticism. He first got involved with MID when several of their members spoke with him at an East-West conference at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1981. This was the beginning of a series of intermonastic hospitality exchanges, with Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns visiting Christian monasteries in the United States and Christian monastics being hosted at Tibetan Buddhist sites in India. Years later, at the Parliament of World's Religions in 1993, MID hosted a Buddhist-Christian dialogue on "Emptiness and Kenosis." The Dalai Lama took part in the dialogue and afterward told MID that he felt its dialogue with Buddhism had matured to the point [where] it would be helpful to have a weeklong retreat dialogue on the spiritual life in Buddhism and Christianity.

Where did Gethsemani enter the picture?

The Dalai Lama asked if it would be possible to hold the spiritual dialogue at Gethsemani Abbey, home of his friend Thomas Merton. In 1994 MID sent a delegation [End Page 197] to Dharamsala to discuss the proposal in more depth with the Dalai Lama. An agreement was reached to hold a retreat dialogue at Gethsemani Abbey with Buddhist and Christian teachers of spirituality coming from around the world.

You're not a monk. How did you get involved?

Good question. A year later, Sister Mary Margaret Funk, executive director of MID, met with me to request that I help organize the encounter as a lay advisor to MID. MID had used my book, Spirituality and Emptiness: The Dynamics of Spiritual Life in Buddhism and Christianity, to prepare for the Parliament dialogue on kenosis and emptiness. I agreed to help with inviting the Buddhist participants, crafting the program, and editing the proceedings.

What developments in the dialogue have you seen occurring over the years?

Many developments. As you can imagine, the Gethsemani Encounter in 1996 was itself a spiritual experience. As Ewert Cousins put it, there seemed to be two treasure boxes—Buddhism and Christianity—set before us in a spiritual atmosphere that enabled us to appreciate the gems of spiritual living shared by the participants. So the encounter itself brought the dialogue to a new stage of trust, understanding, and appreciation. This development can be seen in the fact that Buddhist participants suggested a project be undertaken to produce a Buddhist commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. The result is Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict, edited by Patrick Henry and published by Riverhead Books in 2001.

What else?

A small group of American Buddhist leaders and MID members met in 1999 to discuss the possibility of holding a Gethsemani Encounter II. It was decided to bring the dialogue ahead by focusing on one of the major topics that came up again and again at Gethsemani I—namely, the...


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