05 October 2018
The surprises when we keep our
heads up and our eyes open
So often on city streets our heads are down and our faces are in our ’phones, so that we miss what is passing us by on those streets.
I was glad I had my ’phone in my hand but my head up as a walked along O’Connell Street in the centre of Limerick yesterday [4 October 2018], early on a clouded, grey morning. Otherwise I could have missed the colourful parade that passed by on the other side of the street.
Four Buddhist monks were walking along the street, passing a Japanese restaurant that had still had its shutters down. They were in their saffron robes and carrying their dharma drums or their begging bowls, naked up to their knees like medieval mendicants.
It was a brief moment. They were walking briskly in a row. Another moment and I might not have even noticed their presence.
Looking at their robes and their shaven heads, they may have been Thai, Burmese of Sri Lankan, or perhaps Japanese, although that is only a remote possibility.
But their serene presence reminded me of my own engagement with Buddhism in East Asia over the years.
When I was a student in Japan for a term in 1979, I took the opportunities to visit a number of Buddhist monasteries throughout Japan, including Sensoji temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, the Buddhist temples in Kamakura and the giant statue of Amida Buddha at Kōtoku-in, and Ryōan-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto with its famous garden.
I was back in Japan in 1981, representing the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND) at a major conference on disarmament, and I was invited by the Nihonzan Myohoji, who have built peace pagodas around the world, to visit a number of Nichiren Buddhist monasteries.
In more recent decades, I have also visited Buddhist monasteries throughout China, and in Hong Kong and Korea.
But I was still startled by this early morning sight on the streets of Limerick yesterday.
Some of the early efforts to begin Buddhist-Christian dialogue were initiated by the Trappist Thomas Merton, and his friend, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a dialogue later continued by the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan. An early Irish pioneer of Buddhist-Christian dialogue was the Belfast-born Jesuit William Johnston (1925-2010), author of Christian Zen and other books on Christian-Zen dialogue. He taught at Sophia University in Tokyo where I attended many lectures in 1979.
More recently, there has been an interesting friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
Of course, there are major, inherent differences between the two religions. The belief in one God is at the core of Christianity, while Buddhism moves towards non-theism or the lack of relevancy of the existence of a creator deity. The understanding of grace in Christianity runs counter to the rejection of interference with karma in most schools of Buddhism. And the place of Christ in Christianity is very different to the understanding of the role of Buddha in Buddhism.
Yet there are interesting meeting places, including the place of meditation, the understanding of taking on the suffering of others and comparisons in understandings of the monastic life. Father William Skudlarek, a member of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, is secretary-general of the international Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, a project of Benedictine and Trappist monks and nuns that promotes dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in some version of monastic life.
My entrance essay to begin postgraduate work in the Irish School of Ecumenics in 1982 was a paper comparing Christian and Buddhist understandings of suffering. Little did I know 36 years ago the path I was setting out on and where I was going.
I wonder where those four Buddhist monks were going early yesterday and what path they were on.