Last April 24-29, 2017, the sixth Buddhist-Christian Symposium organized by the Focolare Center for Interreligious Dialogue and by several Christian and Buddhist partners took place in Taiwan.

The first part of the event was held at Fu Jen University, the prestigious Catholic university on the island. The event entitled, Buddhists and Christians in Dialogue: From the Writings of the Missionaries To Interreligious Dialogue, provoked reflection on how much has changed in the world of religions since the first Western missionaries arrived in the Orient at the start of the fifteenth century until today, when we recognize and address as one of the fundamental needs of humankind: the need for dialogue between people who believe, whatever their faith may be.

The days of reflection were jointly organized by the Fujen Catholic University of
Taiwan, by Sophia University Institute in Loppiano, Italy, and the Focolare Center for Interreligious Dialogue, and Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Monastery and University, one of the renewal centers for Chan Buddhism of China. Seventy of the attendees were experts in the field: a large number of Theravada monks, Buddhist and Catholic laity from Thailand, a group from Taiwan, which included the president of the Dharma Drum Institute for Liberal Arts, along with personalities from the academic world.

The topics aroused much interest. Presentations of the writings of Christian missionaries covered a period between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the reflection centered on Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit apostle of Christianity in this part of the world, a master of that art of adapting that allowed him to reach the soul of the Chinese people. Yet, Ricci was precisely an object of interest for his less than accommodating position towards Buddhism. Missionaries from the fifteenth to twentieth century were not open at all to the followers of Buddha and, in their debates, were intent on showing who the followers of the true God and true religion were.

The workshops also examined the critical position of Buddha’s followers towards Christians.
This historic background, about which Christians cannot deny the need for an adequate examination of conscience for the errors and discrimination they were guilty of, highlights the positive value of the experience of these last sixty years. Today, dialogue is moving ahead through relationships of mutual trust and esteem, even though there are still points that always need to be clarified and eventually defended, in order to preserve one’s own precise identity and avoid syncretism.

In the course of the workshop sessions, concrete experiences of dialogue were shared from Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines – and new actors have appeared on the scene who are now recognized pioneers of an experience of dialogue followed by others. The example of spiritual friendship between Chiara Lubich and Nikkyo Niwano, the respective founders of the Focolare Movement and of the Rissho Kosei Kai, demonstrates how renewal movements that have become part of several traditional religions for a century now, have become vehicles of encounter and friendship among peoples from different cultures and communities.

At Dharma Drum Mountain Monastery and University

The second chapter of the Taiwan symposium-pilgrimage saw the group at Dharma Drum Mountain Monastery and University, founded by a Chan Buddhism reformer, which is a one hour drive away from Taipei.

The opening ceremony began at 10 am. A member of the teaching faculty, Guohuei Shih, introduced the professors there. There were about 70 of us from the U.S., Europe, Thailand, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, China and Taiwan – with Buddhists from different traditions, and Catholics. The Buddhists were Theravada monks and laity from Thailand, Mahayana Buddhists from Japan who represented ancient schools such as Nichiren-Shu, Tendai-Shu and more recent movements like the Rissho Kosei-kai. There was a lot of warmth and good relationships that had been established over the years.

After the opening ceremony, a visit was conducted to the huge complex of Dharma Drum Mountain, including a tour of the museum of Master Sheng Yen, the founder of Dharma Drum and reformer of Chan Buddhism. In the afternoon we continued by touring the various halls, where images of the Buddha were venerated.

The most beautiful moment of the day came at “blessing time”: a long moment of prayer where each person prayed according to their tradition – a moment of solemnity, respect and silence. In the hall dedicated to Buddha, where Christians that morning had also celebrated mass, we spent an hour-and-a-half reciting a string of prayers. The Theravada monks began and the Christians followed. Later to intone were the members of the Rissho Kosei-kai and Tendai-Shu, finishing with the Fo Gu Shan monks.

Time seemed in a standstill, and we felt greatly enriched in our hearts. As we were leaving, we felt closer to each other. A spirit of communion and mutual respect had been fostered, bringing us closer to one another.

In the following days, we got to know each other better. We even dealt with the theme of suffering, with talks on the personal and social dimensions of suffering, by Christians, Theravada Buddhists from Thailand, Mahayana Buddhists, the Buddhist Rissho Kosei-kai, Tendai-Shu and Won Buddhism from Korea.

The head of the Dharma Institute of Liberal Arts, Rev. Huimin Bikshu, confided that this was the first meeting of its kind at the university. Besides those signed up as participants, there were also monks and nuns from the Dharma Drum Monastery and students of the college. The event was marked by a great spiritual and existential commitment. The dialogue allowed us to emphasize what we have in common, despite great differences existing between traditions. “These are experiences that build bridges of dialogue and that bring hope”, as Rev. Nisyoka from the Japanese Tendai-Shu affirmed.

A young Japanese monk, the abbot of a temple in his country, best explained the depth of the experience. “Rarely in life have I perceived the intimate presence of God-Buddha as I have done during these days of our symposium in Taiwan…Having studied in Christian schools, I always thought that Christianity was a religion that happens in church (rites and religious services). During the symposium in Taiwan instead, I understood that Christianity is the religion of God’s presence among people.”

Other impressions

From the Philippines, Gabriel Lim expressed: The series of interreligious dialogue conferences with the Buddhists was, for me, a precious opportunity to establish “bonding” with Buddhists who are spiritually influential and who recognize the indispensable value of universal brotherhood towards the pressing global problem of ecological disharmony and
the inevitable consequence of personal suffering. It seems that there was a feeling of unanimity that universal brotherhood and ecological harmony can be powerfully realized in interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
Roberto Signor, Co-Director of the School of Dialogue with Oriental Religions (SOR) in Mariapolis Peace, Tagaytay shared: “In Taiwan, highlighted in the dialogue this time was the role of the academe, as it was held in three different universities and open to scholars of those institutions. Taiwan has a mysterious ‘spiritual atmosphere’ which envelops you and fascinates people. This spiritual atmosphere was particularly perceptible at the Dharma Drum Mountain Monastery and University where its environment and deep spirituality lived by monks, nuns and lay people were remarkable: the harmony of its environment, the exquisite vegetarian cuisine prepared by many volunteers, and the refined attention and care from our hosts. Dialogue was not just a theory talked about on stage, but it was life itself. We can learn much from one other, when our hearts are open to those who are different.”

Dr. Lolita Castillo, co-director of SOR in Tagaytay also affirmed: “It was a
great unforgettable experience. I have experienced peace and serenity in the conference. There was so much care and love. The contents of the talks were amazing and enriching. The dialogue with Buddhist friends did not end after the whole event. The friendships created marked not just friendship but an experience of being one family.”

Roberto Catalano  

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