Under the Bodhi Tree
- the Dalai Lama and Fr. Freeman
In looking through some old issues of The Tablet, I stopped to read one about Christianity and Buddhism, titled Under the Bodhi Tree, by Benedictine monk and priest Laurence Freeman, founder of the John Main Center for Meditation and Inter-religious Dialogue at Georgetown University. It speaks of the effforts to find common values in Christianity and Buddhism. Since I have an interest in Buddhism (my sister still practices meditation, though I've given it up), here's some of the article below ...
A single leaf fell. Early December mornings in Bodhgaya are, by Indian standards, rather fresh. By English standards, however, the sun was already quite strong, as we sat down on well-arranged cushions under the Bodhi tree with the Dalai Lama. Here was the most sacred of Buddhist places of pilgrimage, where, two and a half millennia ago, the Buddha came to enlightenment ......
At the beginning of our first session, he gave us a powerful and moving sign. When we were seated and about to begin, a large rolled Tibetan thanka was brought to him, which he presented to our meditation community as a gift. Thankas, painted on cloth, are, rather like Christian icons, portable devotional objects, often of great beauty. As it was being unrolled, the Dalai Lama asked me to guess what the subject was. I thought it would be some Buddhist theme traditional to the genre, a wheel of life or Bodhisattva. Instead there appeared an exquisite Nativity scene, in bright Tibetan colours and gentle style – not at all what I expected. Modelled on a fifteenth-century Dutch altarpiece, it was rendered in typical Tibetan style, so that the ox looked rather like a yak and the lute- playing angel like a descending Bodhisattva, and it drew a gasp and spontaneous applause from everyone.
One has to take risks to make progress. There are apparently some Buddhists who do not feel easy with the familiarity the Dalai Lama shows to Christians. And there are even some Christians who feel that Buddhism presents a threat to Western Christianity. But it is a groundless fear. The Dalai Lama, as he frequently repeats, does not advise people to change their religion although, of course, he recognises their right to do so.
Some do indeed change. But the Western Buddhists I have met generally seem to me people for whom Buddhism is a first genuine religious experience. Why this should be so in a Christian culture is a question for the Churches to answer. The large numbers of young people who frequent Buddhist meditation centres are attracted to Buddhist thought, or even to the Dalai Lama’s personal goodness. They are not apostates – they are seekers. When they find, through The Good Heart, for example, a Christianity open to dialogue which offers them a spirituality of depth and a revelation of joy, they often embrace it with relief. The Dalai Lama told me that of the many letters he still receives because of The Good Heart, the ones that please him most are those from Christians telling him how it has helped them to embrace their traditional faith afresh .....
As we sat under the Bodhi tree one morning before meditation, I read the Beatitudes aloud. Later as we prepared for the dialogue session, I read the Crucifixion narrative. The Dalai Lama listened intently, as we did to his searching questions about Jesus and how Christians see God in Jesus, about hell and purgatory, grace and faith. What does it mean, he asked, that Jesus is the only son of God?
These sessions were far from academic; rather, we pilgrims to Bodhgaya felt as one does after a good workout – tired but energised, clearer and stronger. The point of dialogue with those you love and respect is not to convince but to listen. The greatest changes are wrought by listening. This is what Mary teaches us as we see her gazing on the humility of God in the beautiful Nativity thanka that on Christmas Eve, a week after Bodhgaya, adorned the wall of the church at my Cockfosters monastery during midnight Mass.
Perhaps, though, we were being rather selfish pilgrims. We were thinking, not about how many Buddhists we had convinced, but of how much deeper and more precious our understanding of Jesus had become. And yet, is this not the secret of Christianity, to see how Christ who dwells with the Father and in the human heart dances in a thousand places? Seeing that, we learn the secret of abandoning divisions and fears and embracing the universal friendship which the Dalai Lama shares so amazingly with the world.
Can it be done? Is there enough time to do it? If these are the questions Jesus declined to answer to his disciples, perhaps what we should do is give time to watching the leaf of enlightenment fall and see its hidden meaning. See how simply and naturally it falls and with what divine punctuality and precision.