The first conference between Buddhists and the Discalced Carmelites, an order of the Catholic faith, at the International Centre of Teresian and Sanjuanist Studies (CITeS) in Avila was a success, not because of the number of people that attended, nor because some groundbreaking theology being hammered out, but by the mere fact that the event occurred at all. The conference, which took place from 27–30 July and was titled “1st World Encounter Teresian Mysticism and Interreligious Dialogue: Theravada Buddhism and Teresian Mysticism – Meditation and Contemplation, Pathways to Peace,” was hosted by a minority within a minority.
People professing to actively practice Catholicism in Spain make up only 19 per cent of the population. It seems that traditional Christianity brings back toxic memories from the Franco era for baby boomers, while millennials want nothing to do with religion at all. Within this dwindling crowd serving Christ are the Carmelites, an order whose nuns and priests number no more than a few dozen in affiliated monasteries in Spain. Yet despite their small numbers, these spiritual heirs of Saint Teresa have laid the groundwork for a very fruitful, ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and Catholic mystic traditions with the conference earlier this year.
I was told after the conference that the Vatican had sent an envoy, to see what was going on in Avila. A representative of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was present at the symposium, dressed in plain clothing. Afterwards, he congratulated Father Francisco Javier Sancho Fermín, director of CITeS, which was, for as far as I can conclude, a thumbs-up from Rome.
The conference’s success owes not only to the goodwill on both sides but genuine possibilities for a theology of religions to develop through a mutual conversation between the Carmelites and Theravada Buddhists. A theology of religions is not only the most challenging kind of theology to articulate for both sides, since it involves a doctrinally faithful discernment of truth in the other religion. Yet this is, in my view, one of the most interesting and exciting forms of theology, especially in such an age of division and visceral disagreement. My opinion was shared by Father Javier, who spoke eloquently and persuasively on his interfaith mission, calling it an “exercise of responsibility, but more accurately of co-responsibility.”
According to Dr. Rómulo Cuartas, sub-director of CITeS and an authority on Saint Teresa, there are four rubrics that could constitute meeting points for Carmelite mysticism and Buddhism: one is that the state of being human and consciously mortal is the reference point for all “worshipful” activity, or religiosity. Second, during spiritual practice, the practitioner leaves the outside world and journeys into the interior, removing the clutter and neuroses within and experiencing purification. The third window is that elusive but extant state of happiness, harmony, and freedom—a state of true human meaning and fulfillment. Finally, the fourth dimension is the quest of benefiting others, even at the expense of oneself.
Sister Maria José Pérez, a Carmelite nun, spoke of her deep admiration for Italian-born bhikkhuni Ven. Dhammadina and how more opportunities for building cross-religious friendships were needed. “The Pope himself has expressed prayerful wishes for interfaith dialogue,” she said, noting that while love is crucial, we can only love what we know. “First we must have knowledge of others if we are to offer them true love.” She likened a person’s openness to a beach or shoreline, absorbing everything from the waves that come and go. The idea of openness was absolutely central to the development of friendship between Buddhists and Carmelites: that all those present were at the symposium to forge friendships, with no ulterior motive of converting anybody to one’s own faith. Without sincere openness, the interfaith project would have been a waste of time for all.
The Sister pointed out very rightly that it is because of strength in her faith that she and likeminded others wanted to enter into interreligious friendship. She disagreed with those who feared even a little exposure to another faith, as if that tiny helping of another way of thinking would destroy their own convictions. “Some say Saint Teresa would not have accepted such a dialogue,” she said. “Mysticism is about respect and understanding the Other. Sometimes people inside the Church with open minds have more in common with people outside the Church than the narrow-minded people within it.”
Finally, I wish to expand Dr. Cuartas’ rubrics of interfaith commonalities. Sister José Pérez pointed out that mystic spirituality was at the same time the highest and also the most human aspect of the individual. It represents the best of us. This elevation of the human being has parallels with Buddhist anthropology—the conception of the human being in Buddhism—where the path to enlightenment culminates in the perfection of the human being through the attainment of Buddhahood. Active recollection of objects of worship, be it done during the stages and methods of adoring God in Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle or when invoking a sambhogakaya Buddha, demands all the faculties of the individual be devoted to that object. Then there is the silence—silence so that the chatter and trivialities of the external world can fall away, giving way to the growth of the interior, silent reception of the transcendent.
We should give immense credit to the Carmelites for initiating such an unusual dialogue, and I personally hope that Buddhists can answer this call for global friendship by inviting non-Buddhists to our own symposia or conferences. Plainly put, we need more interfaith meetings. In a world with pervasive divisions among cultures and religions, surely it would be nice to make more friends.
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