A distinguished leader in the effort to promote understanding and peace between religions spoke to the assembled Sangha and laity at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) in February.
The speaker was Pierre-François de Béthune, a Belgian Benedictine Catholic monk who is secretary-general of the worldwide Monastic Interfaith Dialogue.
Father Béthune had traveled from Belgium to California especially to deliver the sixth annual Ven. Hsüan Hua Memorial Lecture, which is sponsored by the Institute for World Religions. The Institute, which is a part of Dharma Realm Buddhist University, is headquartered in Berkeley.
In his Berkeley lecture, entitled “Sacred Hospitality,” Father Béthune spoke about his experiences studying Zen meditation in Japan. These experiences convinced him that mere dialogue – mere verbal discussion of similarities and differences between religions – is not sufficient for real understanding. What is necessary is for people of different religions to be willing to enter into each other’s spiritual practices. Since the truths of religion are ultimately beyond words, practicing together in silence is ultimately more effective than talk, although talk may be helpful.
Father Béthune compared this open-hearted sharing of practice to giving and receiving hospitality. The guest in a household of an unfamiliar culture, confronted with customs, lodging, and food that are strange to him, is vulnerable, and it is this vulnerability, Father Bethune argued, that can allow for real appreciation and understanding of a different way of life.
He noted that all the great religions traditionally require their believers not merely to welcome strangers who ask for food or shelter, but also to see them as representatives of the sacred. Only by esteeming strangers in this way can we overcome our natural distrust of what is different and appreciate instead our common humanity. Just as the stranger, in order to experience a foreign culture, accepts unfamiliar food, so anyone who wishes for real interfaith understanding can find it by participating in unfamiliar practices of other faiths. This challenge does not lead us away from our own faith, but rather leads us deeper into our own practice.
At his lecture at CTTB, Father Béthune departed from his text to talk more informally about his life as a Catholic monk and his experiences with silent meditation in the Zen tradition. He spoke about finding his vocation at the age of seven, when during the landing in Normandy in 1944 a bomb killed his best friend. He recounted how his discovery of Zen helped him to overcome his distress at being forced to leave the Congo, where he had been a teacher. Now, at his forest monastery near Brussels, he hosts monthly all-day meditation sessions, and he travels widely to promote his understanding of interfaith hospitality.
At CTTB, Father Béthune was moved to see that his lecture had been translated into Chinese for the first time in his life.
Father Béthune’s lecture in Berkeley will be published later this year in Religion East and West, the annual journal of the Institute for World Religions.