On the Buddhism Beat: Engaged Buddhists at the most recent Parliament of the World’s Religions

Photo courtesy of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions

The first Parliament of the World’s Religions Event, held in 1893 in Chicago, was not only one of the earliest and most important interfaith gatherings in modern history, but also a watershed in the history of Buddhism’s transmission to the West. This past December saw the fifth Parliament in a 116-year period occur in Melbourne, Australia. The theme of this event, Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth, reflected “the urgent need for religious and spiritual communities and all people of goodwill to act on their concerns for the environment, peace, and overcoming poverty, and to take responsibility for cultivating awareness of our global interconnectedness.”

As with all of the Parliament events, this one included significant meetings and discussions between Buddhists and others. My friend and former Naropa University colleague Alisa Roadcup, who now serves as Outreach Director and Development Associate for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions spoke with me via email about significant aspects of the Parliament for Buddhists…

Alisa Roadcup and Danny Fisher with Diana Eck (center)

The first Parliament event, held in 1893 in Chicago, was not only one of the earliest and most important interfaith gatherings in modern history, but a watershed in the history of Buddhism’s transmission to the West. Would you say something about the role that that Parliament, subsequent Parliaments, and the Council have played in this sense?

The 1893 Parliament was not only a fundamental event in the history of the interfaith movement, but also the first formal presentation of Eastern religions to the West. This introduction presented the opportunity for Buddhist study that helped to develop an emerging field of comparative religious studies that today is so important to the interfaith movement.

For Buddhism to emerge from the 1893 Parliament with as much respect and popularity as it did says a great deal, given the auspices of the first Parliament as a subtle means to announce the universal supremacy of Christianity. Buddhist presenters endured the assumption that religions outside of Christianity were inferior. This sleight of hand is obvious in some of the 1893 titles alone, such as “Some Characteristics of Buddhism as it exists in Japan Which Indicate that it is Not a Final Religion”, and “What the Christian Bible has Wrought for the Orient”. Buddhist presenters forged ahead in spite of this discrimination and courageously established their religion as one worthy of respect and admiration. This forbearance and humility played a role in Buddhism’s establishment in Western conversation.

A remarkable Buddhist presence was Anagarika Dharmapala in 1893. With an ancient statue of the Buddha resting on the platform beside him – Dharmapala gave two addresses on the Four Noble Truths and The Law of Karma, presenting formal teachings to a Western audience for the first time. Shaku Soyen was another remarkable leader, remembered as the person who brought the beloved Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki to the West.

At one point, Dharmapala compared the 1893 Parliament to the Council of Asoka, and predicted that Dr. Barrows (an 1893 Parliament organizer) would be remembered as the “American Asoka”. This comparison offers insight into the high esteem Buddhist leaders held for the 1893 Parliament and the level of importance they believe it had for Buddhism’s transmission to the West. These presenters were also influential representatives from different traditions within Buddhism, which provided the 1893 audience with a glimpse of Buddhism’s rich diversity.

Paul Carus’s contribution is of key importance. In 1894, the year after the inaugural 1893 Parliament, Dr. Carus wrote The Gospel of Buddha, the classic text on Buddhism, which introduced many Westerners to the teachings of the Buddha. Because it resembled a Christian “gospel” in structure, it was more culturally compatible for Christian audiences. Paul Carus is remembered as a bridge-builder between religions and science, philosophy and society and Buddhism and Christianity.

Today, the Carus family remains a major supporter of the Council by offering The Paul Carus Award for Outstanding Interreligious Achievement, which provides a $100,000 grant to leaders in the interfaith movement at every Parliament.

The Parliaments have certainly played an important role in terms of Buddhism becoming a global phenomenon.

While Parliaments from 1993 onward have brought many people to greater awareness of the dharma, the religion was already a global phenomenon by the 1993 Parliament, in large part due to the precedent set in 1893.

The expanse of time between the 1893 and 1993 Parliaments did not hinder Buddhism’s flourishing in the West. Both an increase in Asian immigration and continued intrigue in Buddhism post-Parliament led to Buddhism’s growth. This set the stage for Buddhism occupying a much greater role in terms of the large number of Buddhist participants and programs at the 1993 Parliament and subsequent Parliaments.

It’s a little stunning to consider how many important Buddhist figures and scholars were gathered at the most recent Parliament, which was held this past December in Melbourne.  Please tell us about all the Buddhist activity there.

Buddhist participation was so vibrant and intense that it’s hard to say! Almost 80 Buddhist programs, panels and ceremonies were held over the course of seven days. I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a Youth Conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A group of about 20 participants spent an hour with him; we laughed together, asked many questions and explored various themes highlighted at the Parliament, such as Indigenous and Aboriginal reconciliation, overcoming poverty, and cultivating inner peace. His Holiness challenged us to be authentic and honest about who we are, even if we see ourselves as “religious”; especially if we see ourselves as “religious”. His presence held gravitas; yet at the same time felt light and incredibly gentle. I sensed his delight in us… in me. He loves people – loves to laugh and enjoy and watch. He’s a keen observer. Those moments with His Holiness were the highlight of my Parliament experience. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that for many Parliamentarians, the Closing Plenary address by His Holiness was the ultimate moment.

The Ven. Thích Nhat Hanh’s address also was widely praised. His presentation, “A Collective Awakening for the Future of Our Planet,” called for people of faith to awaken to the responsibility and opportunity to be caretakers of the earth.

The program, “Poverty Must No Longer Be with Us” was fascinating. It facilitated by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sulak Sivaraksa—one of the fathers of INEB (International Network of Engaged Buddhists). I’ve been following his work since I was a student in the MA in Engaged Buddhism program at Naropa University, so it was truly an honor to be able to learn from him.

I was deeply inspired by meeting A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Movement who continues to lead ongoing recovery efforts from the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Also memorable were Dharma Master Hsin Tao, child-soldier turned Buddhist monk who presented “Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice: A Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue” and Maria Reis Habito who presented “The Divine Feminine” with Karma Lekshe Tsomo, president of the International Association for Buddhist Women.

Developed in collaboration with Hartley Film Foundation and Auburn Media, the richly diverse presentation of films at the 2009 Parliament included Academy Award-nominated Burma VJ and The Dhamma Brothers.

Not Buddhist, but incredibly inspiring, was Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, a Muslim woman and hero in the truest sense of the word. During the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, she risked her life to establish underground schools for women and girls. I recently interviewed her and I feel that she is our generation’s next Mother Teresa. People like this roam the halls at the Parliament – each with their own incredible story.

Lastly, the program format of the 2009 Parliament was especially unique because major emphasis was placed on constructing interreligious panels to address issues of social justice and activism. Whereas in 1893, the program was mostly academic exposition, the 2009 Parliament was a forum for Buddhist leaders, among other traditions, to share best practices, successful models and creative ideas for social change at the grassroots level.

Piggybacking a little on the last question, what significant insights, events, discussions, and so forth occurred in Melbourne that you think might have special relevancy for Buddhists and Buddhist communities in the Western world?

The 2009 Parliament addressed human rights and spiritual development relevant to every corner of the world. Of special interests to Buddhists, for example, was be the myriad of Buddhist programming offered such as, “Turning the Dharma Wheel” which focused on the flexibility inherent in Buddhism and the opportunity for practitioners to learn from various Buddhist sects – what is commonly referred to as “intra religious encounter.” Thus, a Zen practitioner can learn a great deal from Pure Land, Vajrayana, and Theravada Buddhisms without threatening the integrity one’s own lineage or practice. Familiarity with different traditions within Buddhism can deepen one’s spirituality. This is important to be aware of, and engage directly with because it helps to break down barriers that may exist between different traditions.

One program that generated quite a bit of Buddhist involvement was the “Sacred Sites, Sacred Solidarity” Symposium which featured twelve “Sacred Sites” from around the world. This symposium explored how the relationship between place and culture can heal, ground and nurture future generations. Bat Nha Monastery was representative of the Engaged Buddhist tradition brought to light the tragedy of Bat Nha. At Thích Nhất Hạnh’s presentation, a monk from Bat Nha delivered a special introduction to Thay’s message and shared his compelling story as a monk affected by the violence. Other “Sacred Sites” featured were Uluru in Australia the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Lastly, the intricately beautiful sand mandala created by the Gyuto Monks of Tibet left an indelible impression on me. Each morning of the Parliament, monks led chanting and meditation before picking up where they had left off the day before. The final day of the Parliament, the mandala was carefully dissolved and the vibrant compilation of patterns, colors and images melted into a gray mound of sand. The sand was then carefully collected and a procession of Parliamentarians walked down to the bank of the Yarra River and offer prayers – returning the sand back to the sea.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently offered a special message to the cities bidding to host the 2014 Parliament. What can you tell us about what he said?  What can you tell us about the 2014 Parliament?

From Cape Town, South Africa, Archbishop Tutu addressed to our Chicago headquarters by live video in recognition of the 10th anniversary celebration of the 1999 Parliament of Religions, and the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative’s official launch of the Charter for Compassion in South Africa.

In his endearing way, Archbishop Tutu greeted the Chicago team as fellow brothers and sisters. He thanked the international interfaith community for support in bringing an end to Apartheid. He spoke of “Ubuntu” a Zulu word which translates as “a person is a person through other persons.” He reminded us that our humanity is interdependent and our essence is defined in relation to one another. He ended his message with playful jesting – telling us “I love you all but I hope your country loses to South Africa in the World Cup!”

The 2014 Parliament bid process functions similarly to the Olympic bid process. Cities in the running are Brussels, Belgium; Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas; and Guadalajara, Mexico. Site visits will take place at the end of 2010/early 2011. The host city for 2014 will be announced in October of 2011.

Would you say something about the importance of the Parliament’s work today when it’s somewhat easier for religious groups and persons to communicate with one another than it was in 1893?

Parliaments of today are very different from 1893. During the 1893 Parliament, nearly all Western presenters had little comparative knowledge. The discussions were shaped by this lack of knowledge, and presenters were limited to introductory presentations of their faiths. Also, presenters like Dharmapala and Soyen Shaku had to earn the respect of their audience, rather than that respect being a given as a matter of principle, which is now the norm at modern Parliaments.

The most recent Parliaments operate under a degree of assumed familiarity. This allows for panels that are interreligious in nature and shaped by practical, social issues in contrast to the academic and theoretical topics of 1893.

Now, how has communication made these developments a reality? For one, during the 100 years between 1893 and 1993, the increase in communications technology made it easier for one to become educated about different religions. From telecommunications to easier access to news outlets, the general public’s accessibility to the world’s religious diversity exploded in the last century. Add to this the advent of the internet, especially with social media in the last few years alone, and resources for increasing one’s familiarity world religions are now more available than ever.

This makes it especially important for the Parliament to advocate for religious understanding and cooperation when people are confronted with a religious ‘other’ unlike any other time in history. Safe spaces for dialogue, whether through face-to-face encounter or virtual or online connection are needed in order to create a platform for recognizing the shared humanity of the ‘other’.

Most exciting are our plans to host virtual Parliaments. To begin, we’ll host bi-annually. We’ll also ensure that 2014 will be “virtually” accessible to anyone in the world who has access to Internet. We are very excited about going virtual.

For more, join PeaceNext.org — the Parliament’s social network designed to bring together the global interreligious movement. You can also keep up to date on what’s happening at the Council by following them on Facebook, Twitter, and their blog.

For more from Danny Fisher, see his previous posts here on SunSpace, or visit his blog.