Sunday, February 7, 2016


Posting a very very interesting reflection of an Indian Jesuit-Zen Roshi, Ama SAMY S.J.

Ama Samy SJ
In 2010, the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania hosted a workshop for Jesuits engaged in dialogue with Buddhists and in the study of Buddhism. It was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, April 23-25. Following the workshop, AMA Samy, an Indian Jesuit Zen Roshi, offered his reflections on the promises, and challenges of interreligious dialogue.

In the context of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Thailand, the life and writings of Fr. Edmond Pezet (1923-2008), the French missionary member of SAM (Société Auxiliaire des Missions) are remarkable He lived among the poor and also for a time in a Buddhist monastery. Two of his companions also seem to have followed his example. I know only a bit of Pezet’s writings through the kindness of Fr. Henri Huysegoms of SAM, who is working in Japan.
Pezet gained an intimate experience and knowledge of Buddhism by living with Thai monks. He remarks,
There is an imperative and urgent need to stop denigrating or minimizing the profound meaning and essential value of that which these strange, surprising disciples of the Buddha strive to put into words and above all to live. It is never too late. Moreover, this works both ways: they have seen us as indefinitely incapable of doing justice to the ultimate spiritual scope, the vision and intuition, of what which they are trying to live, and this has inevitably confirmed them in the opinion that we have no notion of such matters. Ultimately, they have never felt truly “recognized” by us, and this has in turn prevented them from recognizing us.
The Buddhist Vision
Let me string together in my own words some of the inspiring points Pezet makes about Buddhism: 
  • Buddhism is a spiritual Way, not a religion as such; it is a way of self-renunciation and compassion. Buddha’s teaching are recited and verified, not as dogmas to believed, but as a way to practice. In the Buddhist Councils, the scriptures were recited and the tradition verified, not dogmas propounded. 
  • Buddhism is basically and primarily a marga, a way of practice, with the example and teaching of the Master. Its focus is on the Four Noble Truths taught by the Master: the finiteness and impermanence of all of the world and of the human self, the
  • interdependence of all beings, and the way of transcending suffering and finitude. 
  • Buddhists have fought over doctrines, but in order to be true to the teaching of the Master and for the sake of liberation. They will speak in terms of ‘yes, no, yes and no’, etc as regards the ultimate reality. 
  • The Buddha did not deny a sphere of the ‘unborn, uncompounded and undying’ as the release for the ‘born, the compounded and the dying’, but only silence was the right response before this dimension. Aristotelian logic and Christian dogmatism lose their bearings in the face of the Buddhist teaching of upaya, of skilful means, as well as of Two Truths.
  • Only Buddhists can really speak truly about Buddhism, not outsiders. No dialogue possible on the level of doctrines, since Buddhists sit lightly to these and the doctrines and concepts are open to indefinite and multiple interpretations. 
  • No permanent self, no God who saves—you simply focus on this life and the practice of ethics and compassion; remove first the poisoned arrow from your mortal flesh, do not get lost in vain metaphysical speculations. 
  • Nature is grace, grace is nature; there is no superadded reality. 
  • The monastic community is central: they bear witness to the truth of the way, to liberation in this very life and, their life is for the sake of the community. They live a life of contemplation, but now sadly are seduced to become social activists like the Christian priests. They are monks, not priests. Only contemplative Christian monks can dialogue with Buddhist monks. Not discussion, but practice, silence, prayer and respect.
Challenges and Counter-Challenges
Pezet remarks that the Buddhists see the Christians as superstitious and self-centered: superstitious in their irrational beliefs of a creator God, eternal soul, immortality, eternal heaven and hell, absolute truths and so on; self-centered in terms of over-concern for saving one’s soul, believing that one will live eternally and so on. The Christians are deluded, egoistic people. Similar sentiments are held also by many Hindus in India; Christian nuns and priests are appreciated for their social works but are not considered to be spiritually enlightened! Christians accuse Hindus of idol worship, but seem oblivious to the fact that the Catholic belief in and worship of the eucharistic bread and wine can also appear idolatrous. One rule for us and one for the others—a missionary double-speak!
A famous incident in Thai history of Buddhist-Christian exchange is no less challenging. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King” of France, exchanged a number of ambassadors with Narai, the king of Siam, or – as we call it today – Thailand. One of the French ambassadors brought a letter from Louis XIV, in which he suggested that King Narai might convert to Christianity because, as the “Sun King” wrote, “Knowledge and Worship of the true God … is only to be found in the Christian Religion.” In his polite but firm response, King Narai declined and explained his stance in the following words:
For would not the true God that made Heaven and Earth, and all things that are therein, and hath given them so different natures and inclinations, when he gave to men like bodies and souls, if he had pleased have also inspired into them the same sentiments for the Religion they ought to follow, and for the Worship that was most acceptable to him, and make all Nations live and die in the same Laws? . . . Ought not one to think that the true God takes as great pleasure to be honored by different Worships and Ceremonies, as to be glorified by a prodigious number of creatures that praise him every one in their own way? Would that Beauty and Variety which we admire in the order of Nature, be less admirable in the Supernatural Order, or less beseeming the Wisdom of God? (Quoted by Prof. P. Schmidt-Leukel in his paper read at the Annual General Meeting of the Scottish Inter-Faith Council, October 9, 2005).
During my Zen training in Japan I visited the Rinzai Zen Master of Zuiganji temple in Matsushima with a Japanese sister, who had been working in India and who had returned to Japan because of her cancer. When we had introduced ourselves, the master made a deep bow to the sister and said, “We have enlightenment, which you Christians lack; you, particularly the Sisters, are great in compassionate service, in which we are miserably wanting. It will be so good if we both can meet and work together. For, enlightenment without compassion is useless, and compassion without enlightenment is blind.”
Healing, nourishing, binding Friendship
In Thailand, it was the friendship shown by Chiara Lubich of Focolare when she visited Buddhist monasteries in Chiang Mai and when Thai Buddhist monks visited Italy that paved the way for openness and dialogue. Patriarch Achan Thong said, “I was very much enriched by the contact with the Focolare movement during my visit to Italy. All that I received from ‘Mother’ Chiara I treasure in my heart and mind.” The friendship of equals is the heart of religious dialogue. Here it is worth recalling the Buddha’s words on spiritual friendship, words he addressed with respect to monks, but also relevant to interreligious dialogue:
On one occasion the Venerable Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, came to the Buddha and said that in his view half the spiritual life revolved around spiritual friendship. The Buddha immediately corrected him and said, “Do not say this, Ananda! Do not say this, Ananda! Spiritual friendship is not half the spiritual life. It is the entire spiritual life!”
Liberative Action in Collaboration
Learning from each other and collaborating and working together for justice and peace, particularly for the marginalized and the poor, irrespective of caste, religion, class and group, will be especially important. We each one will come from our own religious vision and world-view, but we can all be together in compassionate service and caring for our fragile earth and the suffering beings. The personal lives and works of Christians rarely bear witness to or call people to the spiritual and the transcendent dimension. Furthermore, Christians most often work by themselves and not in collaboration with Hindus and others. This is seen by Hindus as an attempt to build a Christian empire among the poor and the tribals to the detriment of Hinduism.
Beyond the Cultural Wars
Inculturation in our ways of living is normal and happens all the time, though the Christians seem often to be westernized in their dress and behavior. But in religious practices, it has been tried and found not successful. Both priests and laity are brought up in the so-called Roman or Western types of liturgy and worship. It is next to impossible to change their sentiments and behaviors. Furthermore, there are conflicting groups and factions among Christians regarding the inculturation of religious symbols and liturgies. Our bishops and hierarchy are also conflicted and divided. Furthermore, many non-Christians do not welcome our appropriation of their religious symbols, signs and language. Interreligious dialogue, respect for, and friendship with those of other religions are welcome, but inculturation is suspect and fraught with conflict.
For Catholics, the Eucharist and the Gospels are central.
It is in the gathering around the Eucharist table that the Christian community is formed, bound together, and receives its mission. Bringing into this area conflicts of liturgical inculturation, to say nothing of divisive socio-political options, serves no good. What priests, especially those who come from abroad, have to learn first of all is not how to inculturate the liturgy, but how to show religious sensitivity, reverence and silence before the sacred and respect for the people to whom they are to minister.
A Paradigm clash: Translation versus Transformation 
I have mentioned some important dimensions of interreligious dialogue. I would like now to touch upon two differing approaches. One can be called education, development, formation, learning and so on. The other is transformation, conversion, losing and finding oneself through the other. Even in the realm of therapy, the Jungian therapist Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig, uses the terms well-being and salvation to bring out the similar contrasting views of therapy (in Marriage Dead or Alive? 1986). Kierkegaard’s stages of aesthetic, ethical and religious conversions are similar and very enlightening. The trans-personal theoretician Ken Wilber uses the terms of translation and transformation. Let me use Wilber’s terms.
Translation means learning about the other, studying the texts and religious practices, translating them into one’s own religious world-view and thus understanding them and relating to them. This is what usually scholars do. This is most often what is understood as interreligious dialogue. Here one stands rooted in one’s own religion, one bears witness to one’s own religious faith and community. One can be challenged by the other, learn from the other, adapt and co-opt elements from the other, be enriched by the other. This is what the Church has been doing all the centuries. The Church Fathers rejoiced that the Church despoiled the pagans to enrich itself. Even when one respects the other and lets the other be other, one holds to one’s identity in one’s faith and religion, and from this firm ground one reaches out to the others and learns from others. Many Christian Zen masters in the West use Zen in this fashion, to deepen and broaden Christianity and Christian spirituality.
The other way is called transformation. In the encounter with the other religion, or spiritual way, one loses oneself, dies to one’s own tradition and world-view, so to say, and passes over into the other. Now, one can stay stuck in this passed-over position and become a convert to the other way. But this is not authentic religious dialogue. In authentic dialogue, one dies to one’s own religion, passes over into the other, and then one returns to one’s own home ground. In this passing over and return, one is transformed; there is a new birth, a new earth and new heaven. As Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, one now worships neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem temple, but in spirit and truth. One stands in the in-between, one is free in the spirit of the Lord, the Spirit blows where it will; yet one finds oneself truly and authentically home in one’s own religion. It is as if one has been so far blind and now sees and knows. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! admonishes Zen. If you meet God on the road, kill him! It is not enough to die with Christ; one has to die to Christ. Only thus will you attain true life and freedom. Meister Eckhart prayed to God to help him give up God! One has to go beyond, die to, religion and God, in order to be born in Spirit and Truth. If Christ does not go away, the Spirit will not come.
It is such transformed persons who are truly religious and who are the salt of interreligious dialogue. Alas, such persons are rare birds.
Of course, transformation without translation will be of no use, translation rather should be the preparation for transformation; for transformation is the heart of religion. It seems that such transformation today can take place not apart from interreligious context, of passing over into the other tradition and returning home. However, such transformation may not be possible nor welcome in every religion or tradition. What I mean is that a Christian could pass over into Buddhist Zen or Hindu advaita, for example, and be transformed; but I am not sure about other religions, say for example, Islam ( Sufism may be an exception). With bhakti or theistic religions, it seems only translation is possible and not transformation. In translation one moves on the same or similar level, one changes one set of clothes for another set, one is the same person before and after; in transformation it is a leap to another level and another dimension, one is oneself and not oneself. This is portrayed beautifully in the Zen saying: Before awakening trees are trees, mountains are mountains; in awakening, trees are not trees, mountains are not mountains; after awakening, trees are trees and mountains are mountains!
You cannot expect transformation from the institutional Church hierarchy as such; it is wedded more to stability and security, power and prestige, than to change and creativity. Yet the institutional Church is our home and it can be the sacred canopy that can provide a home even to those rare birds who are drawn to dialogue with other religions. Actually, we cannot survive without such sacred canopies and environments. Transformation takes place in a special community—an intimate, heart-to-heart community, such as we find in the Buddhist sangha between a Zen master and a disciple. And such sanghas also need overarching communities and religious traditions. The Catholic Church is and can be a many-leveled, many-tiered community, a community of varied communities, like a mighty tree where birds of many colors and kinds can find a home. The sad fact is that the hierarchical Church is often frightened of creativity and emerging novelty and tries to hold the lid tightly down. But wonder of wonders, the Spirit blows where it will and the Lord is out of the stone tomb. Let us tell our brothers and sisters that the Lord who is Spirit has gone before us and will meet us in Galilee!
Beyond Religion, Beyond Dialogue: “Standing nowhere, let the Mind come forth!” (Zen)
Religions are an essential part of society and cannot be wished away as some secularists and atheists dream of. Religions also have a dark side and have let their spaces be opened to murderous conflicts and warfare. Hence interreligious dialogue and collaboration have become an urgent call. It is even said that one cannot be religious today without being interreligious. However, today overarching systems, world-forming myths and universal religions have lost their magic and power. They are found to be queens and emperors without clothes. Each religion is an all-embracing world-view, but no religion has an irrefutable foundation. They are “forms of life” and are sustained only by their practicing communities. Christians, for example, cannot simply now appeal to the truth of Christianity; God, Christ and Church cannot anymore claim authority or lordship by divine right.

However, the sense of transcendence and the spiritual is deeply rooted in the human psyche. People today are seeking not for a religion to belong to, but to a spiritual way to follow. In Asia and Africa, Christianity, particularly the evangelical variety, is growing; but here too religions will in the course of time go the same way as they have in the West. Spiritual seekers today look not so much to not religion but to spirituality and spiritual masters. Preaching religion will not do anymore; interreligious dialogue can go only so far. The need of the hour is not religious preachers but spiritual masters—masters who have undergone transformation, not experts in translation.
What will show us a way through our fundamental homelessness and loss of our world? What kind of interreligious spirituality and sadhana (spiritual practice) will offer us a future? Allow me to conclude with a rather long passage from the Jungian psychologist, Wolfgang Giegerich, who wrote some twenty years ago:
As long as we cling to our religions, we blind ourselves to the divine that would show itself in utterly new and unimagined shape from within our real world. We would monotonously repeat the same old answer even after a new question has been asked. We are removed from the place at which we would be able to see, as Jung said, but of course not because we have moved away, but rather because we stubbornly stationed ourselves at the old locus of truth and did not go along, in our subjective consciousness, with the move made by our objective consciousness, the (an-sich-seiende) psychology or logic inherent in our modern world itself.
Maybe the time has come to apply the Christian “Blessed are the poor in spirit” to Christianity itself, to religion as such; and to apply the emptiness that was hitherto sought within Zen to Zen itself as a whole. We have to learn [not to strive for emptiness, but] to live with and in the emptiness that already prevails. We don't need [actively] to sacrifice our religions, nor the notion and status of religion as such. The sacrifice in question here is one that has already been objectively inflicted upon us. We only need to own it, to allow it to be. Religiously and metaphysically, we stand with empty hands. . . . We have to learn to suffer our hands to be empty, in the fullest sense of the word suffer. No image. No symbols. No meaning. No Gods. No religion.
For is it not the empty hand, and the empty hand alone, that could be filled? As long as we cling to our religious traditions, we pretend to be in possession of something. We thereby prevent the advent of what can only come as the free gift of the real world to him who is ready to receive because he has nothing whatsoever of his own accord; as the gift to him who does no longer, with a modesty that is disguised arrogance, denounce our poverty as nihilism, but comprehends it as the presence of the unknown future (In Zen Buddhism Today, Annual Report of the Kyoto Symposium. No. 6, November, 1988, pp. 39-49).
Ama Samy is a Zen master and Jesuit priest who has taught and written on Zen for many years. He studied with Yamada Kōun Roshi of the Sanbō Kyôdan and was authorized by him to teach Zen. After Yamada Roshi’s death he set up his own Zen school, Bodhi Sangha, in Perumalmalai, India, where he lives and teaches.

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