Bridging the Gap
with Inter-religious Dialogue

A talk given by. Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma
at Sakyadhita Conference 2003

Inter-religious dialogue is rather new; it began only about 100 years ago in the United States, when the World's Parliament of Religions met in Chicago in 1893.

This was the first time that Americans became exposed to religions other that Christianity and Judaism. Actually, 50 years earlier Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were reading Indian religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, and leading that group of writers called the Transcendentalists in examining alternative worlds of reality. But only a few members of the intelligence read their works then.

In 1893 when the World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, many more Americans became exposed to other world views. The conference did not end as its organizers hoped, with the Asians recognizing the superiority of Christianity. In fact, the opposite came true. Famous Buddhist monks came from Thailand. Also there came a group of scholars from Japan, including the young D.T. Suzuki, the great Zen scholar who later introduced many Americans to Zen, and the great Anagarika Dharmapala from Sri Lanka, who, in particular, made a great hit, especially among the ladies. He was very articulate and handsome. A short time later the first American took refuge, thus beginning the movement of Americans toward Buddhism.

I do not believe that there were any women who presented papers at that conference, although many women did attend.

About the same time, Sri Lanka had become primarily Christian, because of 450 years of colonial rule. Col. Henry Steele Olcott, an American civil war hero, had been traveling through India and Sri Lanka with Madame Blavatsky, when he converted to Buddhism in public. This act emboldened the Singhalese so much that they threw off their "rice bowl" Christianity and reconstructed Buddhism. For those of you who do not know this period of Buddhist history, Col. Olcott wrote the First Buddhist catechism, and the Twelve Principles common to all Buddhists, and is credited with designing the Buddhist flag that we use today. In fact, he is so important to the Singhalese that his birthday is a national holiday in Sri Lanka.

Now I will get to the main thesis of my talk, inter religious dialogue today in the United States, particularly Los Angeles, as seen from my perspective.

Buddhist participation in inter-religious dialogue began in 1980 with the establishment of the Buddhist Sangha Council, which is comprised of Bhikkhus, bhikkhunis sramaneras, sramanerikas, and ministers. Everyone has an equal vote. About one-fifth of the Sangha Council consists of women.

The Sangha Council began when Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara called all Los Angeles Sangha members together to find a solution to a serious problem that was occurring in the Singhalese community. From this initial meeting it was decided to form the Sangha Council. I wrote its constitution, registered it in California, and established its tax-exempt status. I was immediately elected secretary, not because of my expertise in non-profit legal matters, but because of my skill as a native English speaker and my good notes. In California the secretarial position is second only to the presidency in importance. This threw Dr. Ratanasara and me together frequently in planning and carrying out the Council's programs.

From these frequent meetings an unusual friendship flourished. Dr. Ratanasara was Sri Lankan, a male of the Theravada tradition and twenty years older than me. I was American born, a woman, a Mahayana bhikkhuni, and considerably younger.

At the same time the College of Buddhist Studies was established under the auspices of the Sangha Council and I was made secretary of it also. Dr. Ratanasara and I began team teaching a year long class called Buddhist History and Development which traced its history from pre-Buddhist India to the present day, showing how all of various traditions developed and their relationship to each other. The last several weeks focused on inter religious dialogue and concerns. It soon became the college's most popular course.

In Los Angeles we have large numbers of many different ethnic communities. In 1970 three very far seeing individuals, Msgr. Royal Vadakin of the ecumenical Office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Rabbi Alfred Wolf of the Board of Rabbis, and Dr. George Cole, a Protestant minister, founded the Inter religious Council of Southern California. They soon discovered, however, that they had an ecumenical group of Christians and Jews, rather than an inter religious council. So they began to systematically seek out faith groups other than the Abrahamic religions. First they invited the Muslims to join, then the Sikhs, Bah'ai, Christian Orthodox, Hindus, and Buddhists. In 1982 Msgr. Vadakin spoke to Dr. Ratanasara, the eldest Theravadan Bhikkhu in Los Angeles whom he used to see occasionally in the local bank and invited him to join the Council. He called me and asked my opinion on their invitation. By that time Bhante Ratanasara and I had become good friends. We discussed the idea and agreed. Then we sought out two other friends to join with us. We chose Ven. Setthakic Samahito from Wat Thai and Ven. Yin Hai, a Chinese elder. The four of us became the Buddhist representatives on the Inter religious Council. The I.R.C. consists of four representatives from each faith community: the Catholic Archdiocese, the Board of Rabbis, the Orthodox Christian community, the Ecumenical Council, the Bah'ais, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and finally the Mormons IRC meets monthly, sharing important ideas about their faith traditions and occasionally making statements to the press on important subjects, such as access to health care, crime, religious intolerance, and the like. For any statement to be made by the IRC every group that belongs to it must agree upon the specific terminology.

By late 1985 Msgr. Vadakin called me and asked if I would be the Buddhist representative on a small committee to plan the inter-religious aspect of Pope John Paul II's visit to Los Angeles in 1987. I agreed and helped the Archdiocese determine how they would celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, an important encyclical of Pope John 23rd.

We agreed to have a discussion between the Pope and the representatives of the four non-Christian traditions that Nostra Aetate addressed. Nostra Aetate was the document that opened Catholic attitudes toward other religions and removed statements that these religions were false or misleading. In it John 23rd stated that the Church recognized its roots as coming from Judaism, stressed its brotherhood with Islam, admitted its kinship with Hindu concepts of God, and praised Buddhism for its concepts of wisdom and compassion. The document ended by stating that the Church found much to be admired in these religions and encouraged all Catholics to enter into dialogue with them.

At the meeting with the Holy Father , the five men sat in exactly the same chairs and he on the same level as the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu and the Buddhist, a first for any Pope. The Sangha Council decided that Dr. Ratanasara should be the spokesman for the Buddhists and I should present His Holiness with gifts from the Buddhist community. There were 150 representatives from each of the four communities at the meeting that took place as the Pope was ushered onto the stage hand in hand with the Jodo-Shinshu Bishop, Bishop Saito. Bishop introduced the Pope and ended by saying, "Each of us has a mother, but my mother is best."

The four men each addressed the Pope and he answered their concerns. After the program, the drama continued backstage, where only the Pope, two cardinals from Rome, Msgr. Vadakin, a Catholic monk, numerous secret service men and four representatives of the I.R.C. were standing. After we presented our gifts and received gifts in exchange, we were waiting for the Pope's limousine to drive in. At that time the Hindu representative started to make small talk with the Pope.

I thought, "Maybe I should carry out the task I have been given." There had already been an assassination attempt on the Pope's life, so security was very tight. Those of us who were to meet directly with the Pope were kept in a separate room, but I would stand there at the door, waving to all of the Buddhists as they came in. A number of them came to me and handed me rosaries, asking me to get the Pope to bless them. I thought there was no way I could ask that of him, so I slipped them into my sleeve. Now as I stood there face to face with him, I said, "Holy father, as you know many of our Vietnamese and Sri Lankan Buddhist families have Catholics in them as well. Some of these people wanted me to ask you to bless their rosaries." He said. "Give them to me." So, I reached into my sleeve (I was wearing a yellow robe with ceremonial sleeves) and pulled them out, just as six secret servicemen reached into their belts to pull out their guns. They looked to Msgr. Vadakin who motioned to them to put their guns away. The Pope took the rosaries and blessed them and returned them to me, which I again secreted in my sleeve. I did not know until Msgr. Vadakin told me the story that that had happened. I believe that John Paul and I were the only ones who were unaware of what was happening, we were looking into each other's eyes so intently.

In 1988 the Buddhist Catholic dialogue was initiated. An ongoing group meets every six weeks, with the same eight Buddhist and eight Catholic representatives. After Dr. Ratanasara's dearth in 2000, I became the Buddhist co-chair. Mike Kerze, a scholar, is the Catholic co-chair. We had already coauthored a booklet called "A Beginning Journey" about our first year of dialogue. We have been meeting consistently now for thirteen years.

The role of women's participation in inter religious concerns cannot be overemphasized. From the very beginning 3 of our 8 members of the dialogue were women, where the Catholics only had one woman. Today each side now has half of their member as women. If you are recognized as a Buddhist leader many opportunities will come to you. Last month I spoke at gathering at a Jewish temple on the topic of "What We Believe: from Birth to Bereavement."

I am frequently asked to participate in many interreligious activities and am now on the local planning committee of the Society of Christian Buddhist Studies to be held in 2004 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

As Buddhist Women we must make our selves known through our good works. If you make yourself indispensable you will be invited to serve on more committees than you can possible serve. I am fortunate because I have always had the support of the Bhikkhu Sangha. Whenever a conservative Theravadan Monk would visit, Venerable Ratanasara would introduce me, saying, "This entire center belongs to her " Then he would send them out to Hai Lai Temple, Saying, "Go visit this Chinese temple, it cost $26 million to build and all of the work was done by Bhikkhunis, Not Bhikkhus, and they raised the money and oversaw the building and landscaping"

In fact, my support among the Bhikkhus is so strong that in 1994 I held my first Grand Ordination, Splitting the traditional ceremony in half, Dr. Ratanasara as the eldest Bhikkhu played the role of Uppajaya, splitting it with me. We had 6 ordination masters, male and female, and 30 witnesses masters at that ceremony we ordained 7 women into the Tibetan tradition, 2 Vietnamese Bhikkhunis, 1 Theravadan Vietnamese Bhikkhuni, 1 Vietnamese Bhikkhu and 1 Vietnamese Sramaneras, 1 American Bhikkhu, 2 American Dharma Teachers, 2 Vietnamese Sramanerikas, 4 Anagarika, and 8 Upasakas.

In my letter to all Sangha members in L.A. inviting them as witness or as Ordination masters, explaining that we would hold the traditional ceremony in English, but placing female masters on the same level as males. I received no answers of "I disagree of what you are doing", everyone responded with " yes I will attend" or " yes, I approve of what you are doing, but cannot attend."

I had full participation from Theravadan Bhikkhus of both Sri Lanka and Thailand. They were following Dr. Ratanasara's lead, for which I thank him. In 1997 we held our second Grand Ordination. At that 3 hour ceremony representatives from Buddhist /Christian Dialogue and the IRC attended.

There is nothing that a woman cannot do, especially if she has the approval of the Bhikkhu Sangha. To achieve that end, you must use every Upaya you can think of, Make yourself known and be persistent in your efforts. They do pay off.