It’s surprising how important Buddhist beliefs and practices have been to evolving world communities and their ability to live together in peace and mutual respect. I first learned about Buddhism during the 1960s VietNam war, when Buddhist monks led non-violent protests against American aggression. At it’s height, the US committed 500,000 American soldiers to the war. Every man in my college class had to face Vietnam one way or another.

Back home, at my Jesuit college, we studied Catholic philosophy and Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber. My “non-Catholic” roommate was allowed to take a World Religions course, which we dorm mates envied. At dinnertime, we plied her with questions about what she was learning.

As the world has become more connected – by news, online exchanges and travel – we’ve learned more about the histories of world religions. We can study how they are practiced today, including their collaborations with or opposition to other religions in their societies and in ours. Organized religions periodically gravitate towards, or are coopted by, secular political power and ambitions. Many warring factions and much political oppression in our own times are undergirded by religious conflict.

I’m drawn to Buddhism. It’s not easy to study it alone, living in a rural Christian community. We need fellowship, to share learning and insights and yes, disagreements, with others on spiritual paths. In the 1980s, I made a life-long friend, a writing teacher and Buddhist activist, who has taught me much of what I understand. Among other practices, she joined the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and participated in the late 1990s Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, walking from Boston to the many sites of slavery – urban slave markets, former plantations -- down the eastern seaboard, actions that helped prompt a reconsider of southern monuments that is still bearing fruit to this day.

Buddhism is practiced in many forms and countries. My explorations rely heavily on the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. Hanh, a young activist in the Vietnamese opposition to the ‘60s war, engaged with others in nonviolent protest. Eventually he settled in France, creating and leading his Plum Village, writing books, and establishing retreat and residential centers around the world including in New York State and in the San Diego area. Among his many books, my favorite is Being Peace. In it, he shares a poem he wrote, Call Me By My True Names, in which he imagines himself as a mayfly, a bird, a frog, a snake, a child in Uganda, a refuge girl in a boat, a member of the politburo, and a man dying in a forced labor camp. I weep every time I read this poem.

Compassion forms a central theme in Buddhism. Buddhists do not see the living world as a top-down hierarchy, with humans on top and some humans on top of others. All creatures, even the most noxious or dangerous, are respected. I try hard not to kill even the peskiest little mosquito. I’m not all the way there yet. It’s a powerful challenge to begin seeing oneself not as an individual who will be saved by “being good” and/or believing in religious dogma. Buddhism encourages us to see ourselves as part of a larger world, animal and mineral, a wonderful relief from the narcissism so rampant in our culture.

Buddhist practices vary by community. All prioritize meditation, alone or with others. It’s not that easy. The idea is to focus on the breath and to empty the mind of all other thoughts. At Deer Park near San Diego, I once spent a day on a slow walking meditation, led by monks in silence. Forty of us formed a beautiful single-file procession up and down the dry hills. We ate in silence. It was remarkably restorative.

The version of Buddhism to which I am drawn embraces compassion as a central behavioral prescription. You can explore this in its many forms - stories, how-to accounts, Buddhist retreats - in your own meditative practice. My favorite go-to books, besides Being Peace, are His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Path; theologian and religious historian (and former Catholic nun) Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life; and Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful reconstruction of Buddha’s life: Old Path, White Clouds.

Prominent Buddhists have engaged in fellowship with Christians and vice-versa. For instance, in Christine Bochen, in her edited Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, recounts the Trappist monk’s week-long encounter with the Dali Lama in the Himalayas. They shared insights from each other’s traditions, focusing especially on meditation and on monastic life in their respective communities.

It’s liberating to feel in communion with many people around the world by sitting quietly reading, meditating, and walking silently and mindfully. Especially at a time when our nation and our world are so torn and challenged. I’d love to join a sangha, the Buddhist term for a group that convenes frequently to meditate, share ideas and challenges. I cherish opportunities to share thoughts and insights from other spiritual paths, respecting others’ beliefs as well as fears, discouragement, and criticism.


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