Nowadays the names of three faith communities in the United States
often appear together: Jews, Christians and Muslims. Today, I am
taking this occasion to send greetings to a fourth religious
population among us--our Buddhists neighbors. Along our coasts and in
many cities throughout our country, there are cultural centers,
places of worship, and monastic and retreat houses, many of which
were established by American Buddhists. With some of these,
representatives of Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, and monastic
communities have formed relationships of cordiality and cooperation.
I am taking the occasion at the beginning of this Spring, when two
important feasts occur--Easter and Vesakh-- to lift up these
relationships and to send greetings to our Buddhist friends and
Vesakh is an eminent Buddhist feast honoring the life of Gautama Buddha. Buddhists teach that he is the one who taught liberating insight and the attainment of nirvana in our world 2500 years ago. Though having somewhat different emphases in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, Vesakh is celebrated by both traditions of Buddhists in the United States and thus provides an occasion to send special greetings. Vesakh this year occurs on April 8 or May 21, depending on the tradition.
Since 1995, the Holy See through the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has issued greetings to Buddhists worldwide on the occasion of Vesakh, and I am forwarding the 1997 greetings with my own good wishes and encouragements to Buddhists in the United States. In his Vesakh message this year, Cardinal Francis Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council, speaks of a joint pilgrimage of peace following along the paths of forgiveness and justice in our two great traditions.
When Pope John Paul II visited Sri Lanka in January 1995, he addressed the people of that country citing two esteemed Theravada texts:
In particular I express my highest regard for the followers of Buddhism, the majority religion in Sri Lanka, with its ...four great values of ...loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity; with its ten transcendental virtues and the joys of the Sangha [monastic community] expressed so beautifully in the Theragathas. I ardently hope that my visit will serve to strengthen the goodwill between us, and that it will reassure everyone of the Catholic Church's desire for interreligious dialogue and cooperation in building a more just and fraternal world. To everyone I extend the hand of friendship, recalling the splendid words of the Dhammapada: "Better than a thousand useless words is one singe word that gives peace..."
His visit occurred a few months after publication of Crossing
the Threshold of Hope, and in chapter 14 of that book the pope
had written expressly about the Buddha. Seven months later, Cardinal
Francis Arinze noted the comments and reactions exchanged over what
the pope had written and acknowledged that misunderstandings often
occur between Christians and Buddhists. His speech was given at a
formal dialogue in Taiwan, where Catholics and Buddhists shared views
on the human condition and the need for liberation, ultimate reality
and the experience of nirvana, Buddha and Christ, and personal
detachment and social commitment. I urge my Catholic brothers and
sisters to study the final statement of that dialogue (published
among other places in Origins, Catholic News Service
Documentary Service, Vol. 25, No. 14, September 21, 1995) and to
share it with their Buddhist friends for mutual reflection and
We in the United States have our special relations to lift up too. For many years a formal dialogue has taken place between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California. Several other dioceses have benefitted from various forms of cooperation and exchanges, especially Honolulu where Buddhists constitute the second largest religious community, but also Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis, to name a few. Last summer the fruits of over two decades of spiritual exchanges between Buddhist and Catholic monastics were visible in the extraordinary "Gethsemani Encounter," where, under the sponsorship of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, 25 Buddhist and Catholic participants and observers many times that number met at Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky, to live together for six days, pray, and exchange views on monastic life and spirituality. I am very pleased that the Episcopal Moderator for Interreligious Relations, Bishop Joseph Gerry, participated fully in that event dialoguing with Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan practitioners, including the Dalai Lama.
The respect of the Catholic Church regarding what is true, holy, and good in Buddhist teachings and practice and the commitment of the Catholic Church to sincere dialogue rest upon the firm ground of the Second Vatican Council's teachings and documents and over 30 years of witness to these teachings. There have been times when this commitment of respect and these teachings may seem to have been forgotten. If, at times, comments of Catholics, including comments reported perhaps inaccurately or with exaggeration by the media, have offended American Buddhists, I am sorry. Such times can be occasions for forgiveness and deeper friendship and opportunities for further exploration of our teachings. As the Chairman of the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, I reiterate the commitment to good relations and dialogue for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Once while I was in Thailand, I was blessed to have witnessed an ordination of Buddhist monks which was for me a spritually moving experience. With these heartfelt greetings and good wishes, I encourage Catholics and Buddhists to maintain contact in various ways possible for the benefits of mutual understanding and respect, growth in our faiths and spiritual practices, and for the sake of all in need of justice and compassion.
Most Rev. Alex J. Brunett
Bishop of Helena
Chairman, Bishops' Committee for
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
Cardinal Arinze's greetings