Watering the Seeds of Dialogue

From 10-14 December 2018, 16 Franciscan brothers from various FCAO entities and beyond gathered in a Buddhist monastery, and lived as brothers among almost 200 Buddhist monks and nuns in the foothills of the Khao Yai National Park outside of Bangkok, Thailand, for 5 grace-filled days of inter-faith encounter and ongoing formation in dialogue.

The combined Franciscan Order and Plum Village Inter-Faith Dialogue Retreat: Building Brotherhood and Sisterhood was organised by the Order’s Commission for Dialogue and the monastic sangha (community) of Thai Plum Village, of the Vietnamese Zen Mahayana Buddhist tradition founded by Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh.

On the first evening, our OFM brothers, together with other Catholic religious, clerical and lay secular participants were provided with an orientation session, which began with a tea drinking meditation led by senior Plum Village monastic, Brother Pháp Niệm. With filled teacups in hand, our brothers were led to mindfully appreciate the drink, and to encounter the seed, cloud, sun and rain within the cup of tea.

Each morning of the retreat began at 4am with a bell of mindfulness, with sitting and walking meditation before breakfast. Participants also witnessed the recitation of the mindfulness precepts by our monastic and lay Buddhist brothers and sisters and shared their reflections on some of these precepts.

In the plenary sessions led by Thai Plum Village, Brother Pháp Niệmspoke about the mindfulness teachings, traditions and practices of Plum Village He also shared about their tradition’s insight about Jesus and the Buddha as brothers. He noted that for Christians, where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, Christ is present in their midst; and for Buddhists, whenever the sangha gathers in harmony, there the Buddha is present.

Phra Goh (Bhante Adhibalo), a young Singaporean monk of the Thai Theravada Buddhist tradition, and active participant in inter-religious dialogue, gave an excellent presentation on the history of Buddhism and development of Buddhist teachings and traditions.

Br. Tom Herbst, a Franciscan theologian and educator from the Santa Barbara Province (USA) and now based in England, performed a dialogue of discovery between Buddha and St Francis, and presented on Christian and Franciscan perspectives on dialogue. This was very well received by all the Franciscans and Buddhists present.

Br. Francis Lee from Korea shared insightfully on the intersection of Buddhist and Christian values, based on his exegetical reading and reflection on the Admonitions of St Francis and thought of St Bonaventure.

A panel sharing was also held, in which invited panelists from the Franciscan and Plum Village traditions shared in-depth and honestly about our respective formation structures, spirit of service, and strengths, limitations and challenges experienced.

For most of the retreat participants, a highlight of the time together was the ‘Be-in’ fraternal celebration on the final night, that comprised of sharing, music and exchange of gifts. As part of a pre-Christmas celebration, our brothers, who wore Santa Claus hats and held candles, sang a number of Advent Carols and gave to each of the monks, nuns and lay friends a small gift bag containing sweets and treats from our different countries.

A lay couple from Japan shared that they were moved and filled with gratitude to witness and experience how Catholic priests and religious and Buddhist monastics are able to understand each other and work for peace.

All of our brothers were moved by the warm hospitality, genuine fraternity and meaningful friendships that developed across our Franciscan religious and Buddhist monastic traditions, and many remarked that they now feel better equipped and more motivated to continue with their engagement in Christian-Buddhist dialogue in their respective countries.

At the conclusion of the week together, the Thai Plum Village leadership felt it was so enriching, that they requested that we have this on a regular basis every 2-3 years, and are happy to continue to host the encounters.

As one of the Plum Village monastics shared in their Vietnamese web page: “Although the days spent together were few, they resulted in much joy and happiness in the hearts of the Buddhist monks and Franciscan brothers, with a shared spirit of compassion, understanding and honest dialogue.”

Photo: langmaithailan.org