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The Second Gethsemani Encounter

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 04/18/2002
In Topics: Religion

Zoketsu reports back on the second interreligious dialog of Buddhist and Christian contemplatives at Gethsemani Abbey.The first Gethsemani Encounter took place in 1996, at Gethsemani Abbey, in Trappist, Kentucky, the monastery of Thomas Merton, well known Christian monk and writer. That this first large international meeting of Christian and Buddhist contemplatives should take place here was no accident: Merton had, in the late 60's, met His Holiness Dalai Lama in India. He was the first Christian monk the young Tibetan cleric had ever really spoken to at any depth, and this meeting had given the Dalai Lama a strong respect for the Christian tradition, and a desire to learn more about it. Merton's tragic death took place on that very trip, so the two never had a chance to strengthen their initial acquaintance. But now, almost thirty years later, at the urging of His Holiness, the encounter between Buddhist and Christian contemplatives was resuming. (In fact, that 1996 meeting came out of an ongoing monastic exchange program that had been been going on for some years between Tibetan Buddhist and Christian monasteries through the sponsorship of Monastic Interreligious Dialog (MID), a Catholic organization established to support it. MID also sponsored the Gethsemani Encounter).

I was a participant at that first Gethsemani Encounter, along with many other Buddhist teachers active in the West, and some from Asia. As it turned out, quite by accident, my role in the meeting was pivotal. Part of our schedule for the week had us all practicing with the monks of Gethsemani in choir, attending the seven-times daily office, in which psalms are chanted and scripture is read. I participated in this eagerly, with great interest, and was astonished by it. My own practice of thirty years has been Zen sitting- sitting in silence with strong awareness, a practice which, from the first time I encountered it, made perfect sense to me, and has always seemed to me the most natural thing in the world. But that one could make as the centerpiece of spiritual practice the recitation of psalms, poems so often passionate, violent, and disturbing, struck me as really strange. And yet, I could see that the monks of Gethsemani, and the other Christian contemplatives I was meeting, were people truly devoted to holiness. They must know what they were doing. So, I wondered, how was this practice of reciting psalms possible? What was it really all about? When it came my turn to speak at the conference I threw out my lecture notes, stood up on the podium, and asked in all sincerity two questions: first, what about about all the crucifixes, so realistic and pathetic, that were hanging up everywhere at Gethsemani? They made me sad, and I wasn't even a Christian and had never been one! How did they practice with this? And what about the psalms, with all their violence and passion? How did they practice with these?

My questions, which were asked in innocence and with respect, brought forth much response. The whole nature of the conference, which up till then had been rather polite but a little boring, changed completely, as we all began to speak much more personally and plainly about our experiences as committed religious practitioners. In fact the monks gave many moving responses to my questions. I took notice of them, and was much impressed, but still not yet convinced about the psalms. This incident led me to a six year long translation project that has been transformative for my own Buddhist practice. You can read the results in my book Opening to You: Zen Inspired Translations of the Psalms (Viking Penguin, 2002).

The Second Gethsemani Encounter took place in April of this year. His Holiness was again to have participated with us, and we were very much looking forward to being with him again, but his health problems, which occasioned a three month travel fast, intervened, so he was not able to attend. This of course changed the character of the meeting quite a bit. Whenever His Holiness is involved in something there is inevitably and necessarily a great deal of hubbub. Without his presence our meeting was more quiet and plain.

About sixty monastics attended, including representatives from Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism (mostly Gelugpa). Among the notable Buddhists who came were Abbot Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, Joseph Goldstein of Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, MA, Ajahn Amaro of Abahyagiri monastery in California, Rev. Hung Sure of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California, Ven Samu Sunim Of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, Chicago, Judith Simmer-Brown of Naropa University, Bhikkuni Tubten Chodron, and Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Abbess of San Francisco Zen Center. There were many Christian monastics, including the Board and Advisors to MID, as well as a several invited guests.

Our discussions took place in the Gethsemani Chapter room, a long austere narrow room with a stone floor and stone walls, a raised podium at one end, on which sat an empty throne. There was a large crucifix, with a stone Christ on it, bowed over with suffering, on the wall above the throne. To either side in the front of the room of were icons fashioned in batik, one of a head of Jesus, and one of Buddha in meditation pose. Participants sat on pews and long benches along the sides of the room, or on chairs arranged in the middle.

Each of the day's four discussion sessions began with a brief period of meditation, accompanied by contemplative music. Presenters then spoke from a podium set up below the raised platform. Following the style that had emerged after my outburst at the first Encounter, which had caused people to abandon their written and previously-distributed papers in favor of spontaneous remarks, here again papers had been distributed but were not read during the presentations times. Instead speakers spoke more informally about the issues the papers were raising, or, in some cases, abandoned their papers entirely and raised other issues. The focus however was not on the presentations but on the dialog that followed, the natural meandering of conversation among people with differing, and also, as we had come to expect, similar views. After each brief presentation, 10 or 15 minutes long, someone passed a microphone around the room as speaker after speaker had his or her say,offering remarks that might or might not follow from previous remarks. So the conversation preceded in waves and currents, as conversation will.

Our theme, chosen some time before by a planning committee, of which I was a part, was suffering. We chose this theme not only because it is so important in both Buddhism and Christianity, but also because it touches on social issues that go beyond theology and the contemplative life. The vision of the Gethsemani Encounter is wider than simply polite conversation among friends on the subject of comparative religion. All of us feel, I think, that contemplative practice in particular, and religious practice in general, can be and needs to be of service to the whole world. So we wanted a topic that would draw this out. The first Gethsemani Encounter had had a public element to it. There was a fairly large audience of observers and press. This time, to make things easier for the Gethsemani community, there was no public audience and no press. We had planned instead to have a public event in nearby Louisville so that we could share the fruits of our discussions with others. But this proved to be too complicated to organize so we will have to be content with sharing our meeting through articles like this one, and through a book, that will be published by Doubleday in future.

Although there was a sense of ease and flexibility to the proceedings, each day did focus on a particular aspect of our theme. The opening day was devoted to a discussion of "Suffering Caused by a Sense of Unworthiness and Alienation." Day two tackled the question of "Suffering Caused by Greed and Consumerism." The Third Day was on "Suffering Caused by Personal and Structural Violence." The final full day was devoted to "Suffering Caused by Sickness and Aging." This list of topics might seem relentlessly despairing; indeed there was a certain amount of heaviness in the atmosphere as we went on. But I would say that the dominant mood was one of enjoyment and friendship.

At this second Encounter, as at the first, there was also an emphasis, side by side with so much talking, on practice. Each day began with early morning meditation, and included at least one Buddhist ritual from one of the schools that was represented. There were also some special events, a visit to Merton's nearby hermitage, a processional walk in the woods to the famous Gethsemani statues. In addition to this, all participants were invited to attended Gethsemani's daily office, as well as the daily Eucharist. This time, because of my translation work with the psalms, I could chant with much more understanding and sympathy than I could six years ago, and the quiet and loveliness of the simple music seemed more appealing than ever. The Church at Gethsemani, which has been redone twice since the Abbey was founded in the mid nineteenth century, is austere and very quiet. It has a stone floor, a long narrow nave in which the choir is located – rows of plain wooden benches facing each other to either side. The chancel and altar have a high ceiling, and the stained glass windows are plain and narrow, high above. The large space seems to give off a perpetual echo or hush that is quite noticeable when you enter.

This year I was impressed especially with the mass, the Eucharist. I have always found Christianity, especially Catholicism, startling for the centrality that powerful, almost, to me, lurid, emotion, plays in it. This is nowhere more clear than in the Eucharist, in which wine and bread are sanctified as the body and blood of Christ, the moment of His last meal is reenacted, and His death and sacrifice recreated as the mystery of the service itself. The sadness of all of this, and the disturbing power of it, were quite striking to me. In most Catholic masses there is one priest who celebrates the mass, offering the wine and wafer to the congregation. It is only in monasteries that you see "concelebration" – a large group of priests making the gestures of prayer and offering in unison, sharing, as it were, in the officiation, a very impressive sight. This Eucharistic enactment of suffering, sacrifice, and redemption had echoes in our meetings, as over and over again our discussions of suffering brought out the Christian message that to suffer on behalf of others is itself the path, the imitation of Christ. I find this idea fascinating and disturbing. Buddhism seems to proceed from the opposite point of view- that there is suffering, that suffering can be ended, and that the ending of suffering through practice is the path. Maybe there is more soul, and more heart felt compassion in the Christian view of suffering. But it can also, it seems to me, be a little bit morbid. We circled round this point again and again in our discussions.

I continued to be fascinated and disturbed about the mass, and spoke of it to some of my Christian colleagues in informal times between sessions. One of them told me the astonishing story of a Japanese Zen roshi, a tough militaristic type, who attended mass once with a Catholic priest. Not realizing that non Catholics were not welcome to receive communion, the roshi followed the others who rose to receive. The priest who was offering communion to the faithful didn't know what to do as the roshi, in his full Buddhist robes, approached him. Not wanting to make a scene, he simply gave him the wine and the wafer and the roshi returned to his place. When his Catholic priest friend returned to the pew to join the roshi, he was astonished to see the roshi's bearing completely changed. No longer stiffly upright and alert, he was instead slumped over the back of the pew in front of him, awash in tears. When the Catholic priest asked him what had happened the roshi sputtered for a while and finally managed the words "intense experience of selfless love."

The wisest and most senior representatives of our two traditions, Father Thomas Keating, the Trappist abbot who teaches centering prayer, a form of meditation practice, and Bhante Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan monk, living in the United States, who is also a meditation master, spoke to open the conference, and both addressed the general issue of suffering. Father Keating's message, which was very clear and well developed, sounded quite Buddhist to me: the true source of suffering, he said, is the false self, rooted in cravings for security, power, approval, and control. It is the human condition to be in the grip of this false self, and we learn it from birth on. Jesus saw this, suffered through it, as all of us must do, and offered a path beyond it. "There is no suffering that is not God," Father Keating said. But to be able to make use of this fact one needs contemplative practice, "for without an experience of God there is only words." Bhante Gunaratana also pointed to the false sense of self as the cause of our endless human suffering. "We are born with a cry, and we cry all our life long," he said, cheerfully. A small alert, and good humored person, Bhante Gunaratana gave us a wonderful way to think about our human problem of suffering. "It's like an onion." he said. "Not the vegetable but the word. Onion is spelled 'on' and 'on' with an 'i' in the middle. So this is the problem. Because of of the 'i' that is always in the middle we go on and on with our suffering."

Although our discussions did touch often on the world and its problems – we talked about the Middle East and religious strife and narrow-mindedness; we spoke, as we certainly had to, about the sex abuse scandals in the Church that were at that moment filling the newspapers; we spoke of overpopulation and violence and economic injustice – they seemed always to circle back to this question of the self as the ultimate cause of suffering in each of us and in the world, and of religious practice as the most fundamental way of overcoming this problem. As with the first Gethsemani Encounter, our discussions were at first a bit abstract and theological, as both Buddhist and Christians were at pains to treat each other to instructions about their respective traditions. But soon (sooner this time than last) we loosened up, and whenever we were in danger of returning to doctrine and lecturing, someone would always bring us back with a provocative question or comment. Bhikkuni Tubten Chodron was especially good at this. I do not think that there were any crucial points that were made in our conversations, any advances in religious understanding or cooperation that one could point to or define. Instead, there seemed to be a gradual unfolding and strengthening of the friendships that had begun six years before, with more and more warmth and trust. We were, after all, contemplatives, individuals who had been moved to devote our lives, full time, to transformative spiritual practice. And although our teachings were quite different in many ways (and indeed, one of the facts that became gradually clear is that the Buddhists differed from each other sometimes as much as or more than any Buddhist differed from any Christian; and that this was true of the Christians as well, making it clear that to speak of "Buddhism" or "Christianity" as if these were clear and universally definable viewpoints, is folly) our basic monastic way of life and our sense of dedication to our paths and to the world was one and the same.

At this Second Encounter I did not make a presentation but instead was asked to offer, with father Leo Lefebure of Fordham University, some concluding reflections. As it turned out, both of us spoke of friendship, and of the power of friendship to transform the world. I issued a challenge to all of us to find ways to move our institutions to action- perhaps with the first ever Western Bhikkuni ordination, that would be attended by Catholic women and men, whose presence would be a sign for the validation and hope for ordination of women in their tradition. Perhaps with the creation of Buddhist Christian retreats that would share practice and insight with the public, and show a model of religious tolerance and peace. Farther Leo wisely pointed out that the task of healing the world's wounds- and our own- is impossible. He threw up his hands: "Impossible!" he said. But, he concluded, spiritual practice has always been about the impossible, and that is what makes it real.

® 2002, Norman Fischer