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Ven. Samten makes an offering to her precious teacher and upadhyika./Courtesy Sravasti Abbey

The importance, possibilities of interfaith dialogue in Spokane

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Guest post by Venerable Thubten Samten, a Buddhist nun from Sravasti Abbey

Ven. Samten makes an offering to her precious teacher and upadhyika./Courtesy Sravasti Abbey
Ven. Samten makes an offering to her precious teacher and upadhyika./Courtesy Sravasti Abbey

The experiences I’ve had in my short time living at Sravasti Abbey (five years), located just outside of Newport, demonstrate that the Spokane area is a treasure trove of opportunity for interfaith dialogue.

As we explore the question for the upcoming forum, The Importance and Challenges of Interfaith Work in Spokane, I would like to share some highlights from two books written by HH Dalai Lama that address the topic of interfaith dialogue: The Good Heart-A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus and Toward a True Kinship of Faiths-How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. In the introduction of The Good Heart, the Dalai Lama speaks about the importance of all the different forms of dialogue being practiced today between religions. He affirmed the importance of scholarly dialogue. But, he also said he felt the most important and most effective dialogue was not intellectual exchange but a conversation between sincere practitioners from the position of their own faiths, a conversation that arises from a sharing of their respective practices.

 “Dialogue is meant to illuminate the parallels and the divergences of belief in order to dispel the dark forces of delusion, fear, anger and pride that can lurk in the spaces between people and their religions…..The less we know about another person or group, the more likely we are to project our worst feelings and prejudices onto them.”

When I reflect on the above wisdom, I would like to share something from my own experience. My mother was a devout Catholic and so, of course, my siblings and I were raised as Catholics. Our attendance at mass each Sunday and for all holy days was unwavering as my mother was also the organist for the church for more than four decades. In those years, due to the very sincere but often not so well trained volunteers who taught us catechism, we were led to think that the Catholic faith was the only way that one would get to heaven and that all others were headed to hell; this is how my child mind heard the message and this was perplexing.

At the age of 22, I stopped attending mass and pursued other things all the while in search of a spiritual practice. I did not leave the church angry; I just was not inspired to continue in that faith.

Many years later, I encountered the teachings of the Buddha through Venerable Thubten Chodron who is the abbess of Sravasti Abbey. I was immediately drawn to the teachings on how to deal with afflictive mental states and the far reaching aspiration to develop oneself so that one can eventually benefit all beings. The more I learned about Buddhism the more I could see the value of my Catholic upbringing. Whenever I would visit my family, I would always go to mass with my mother because it made her happy. This continued even as I became more and more interested in Buddhism and eventually ordaining. The more I came to understand Buddhism, the more I could deeply appreciate Christianity. Over the years I also came to develop a deep respect for the individuals in the community who were still attending mass, the people I saw going to church when I was a child, who are now very elderly were showing up! My own acceptance for the value of other spiritual practices and how necessary it is for there to be a variety of faiths to suit the personalities of others deepened as I came to see the similarities and differences between the two religions I had experience with. Obviously in addition to deepening an understanding of our own faith, sincere study and reflection of other religions is critical to developing a deeper appreciation and respect for the spiritual paths practiced by others.

In HH Dalai Lama’s book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths he points out that understanding between faiths must be placed on a deep recognition of the real differences that exist between faiths. “A successful approach cannot hide the differences by promoting some vague vision of all religions actually being one, nor can it be a syncretistic attempt to merge their various strengths into some universal faith. Rather, it must involve the explicit articulation and celebration of difference, for the differences between religions represent the beauty of God’s infinite wisdom, (from a theistic perspective) and the richness of the human spirit.”

It is my experience that there are always opportunity for dialogue and exchange in the Spokane area and I would like to share a few of the highlights. On Dec. 3, 2013 Thubten Chonyi and I (two Buddhist nuns in the Tibetan tradition) had the wonderful experience of participating in a conversation with 16 students who are part of a Christian Diversity class at Gonzaga University. Since the beginning of the semester, each student in the class has been researching a specific Christian denomination. The students came to the class with questions written from the point of view of the denomination they have been studying.

My interest was held at a high level for the entire time and I really appreciated hearing about the values and beliefs of the denominations, most of which I know very little about. The students too seemed to value the exchange and they responded with more of their own questions as they sought to understand a bit more about Buddhism. At the conclusion of the exchange, I felt enriched and appreciative to learn more about, what we have in common and what the differences are.

Sravasti Abbey has been invited to lead classes in meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Spokane for the past six years. We are delighted at the opportunity to share the teachings of the Buddha. The community at UU and everyone who attends these classes are very clear that we are there, joyfully sharing what we are learning and deepening our understanding of the teachings by engaging in discussions and asking questions.

In 2010, the Spokane Islamic Center invited people in the Spokane area to join them in the concluding festivities of Ramadan. Everyone at Sravasti Abbey who could attend went, and we were welcomed by the community there with warmth and joy. It was wonderful to sit with the people as they prayed, to observe the very heartfelt devotion to their spiritual practice and their respect for one another. We were then invited to stay for a wonderful feast which allowed for warm hearted conversations. Most of us attending that day knew very little about Islam and so we asked a great number of questions. We learned a great deal from the people we sat with during the luncheon and the exchange was enriching for everyone.

One Sunday a month, Sravasti Abbey opens our doors for Sharing the Dharma Day, an opportunity for newcomers and old friends to explore the Buddha’s teachings and share in community fellowship through teachings, meditation, discussion, and vegetarian potluck lunch. People from all faiths and backgrounds can apply the principles explored on Sharing the Dharma Day to enhance their lives. This is something that the community loves and looks forward to. Each time, the day ends with everyone enriched through the sharing of views and ideas!

As we continue to explore how to support the growth and flourishing of interfaith dialogue in the Spokane area, perhaps we can explore some of the ideas that HH Dalai Lama has about fostering harmony and understanding between faiths:

“To achieve a meaningful dialogue, a dialogue which mutually enriches each tradition, I feel we need a foundation that is based on the clear recognition of the diversity that exists among humanity, the diverse mental dispositions, interests and spiritual inclinations of the people of the world.”

It is also crucial to recognize that spiritual traditions share the common goal of producing a human being who is a fully realized, spiritually mature, good and warm-hearted person. Once we have recognized these two points­-commonality of the goal and the clear recognition of the diversity of human dispositions-the I feel there is a strong foundation for dialogue. It is these convictions, these two principal premises that I always enter into dialogue with other traditions, the Dalai Lama writes.

It is easy to see that compassion is one of the many things that unite the different faith traditions in the Spokane area and the world, I am optimistic that those seeking dialogue will work together to create the opportunities and thus set the example inspiring others to join in!

Join us for our next Coffee Talk at 10 a.m., Jan. 4 at Indaba Coffee for discussion on the “Challenges and Importance of Interfaith Work in Spokane.”  Ven. Samten is a panelist.

Ven. Thubten Samten

About Ven. Thubten Samten

Ven. Thubten Samten met her teacher, Ven. Thubten Chodron, in 1996 when the future Ven. Chonyi, took the future Ven. Samten to a Dharma talk at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle. The talk on the kindness of others and the way it was presented is deeply etched in her mind. Four retreats with Ven. Chodron, eight months in India and Nepal studying the Dharma, one month of offering service at Sravasti Abbey, and a two month retreat at the Abbey in 1998 fueled the fire to ordain on Aug. 26, 2010.

Ven. Samten's full ordination took place in Taiwan in March 2012, when she became the Abbey's sixth bhikshuni.

Right after finishing a Bachelor of Music degree, Ven. Samten moved to Edmonton, Canada to pursue training as a corporeal mime artist. Five years later, a return to university to obtain a Bachelor of Education degree opened the door to becoming a music teacher for the Edmonton Public School board. Concurrently, Ven. Samten became a founding member and performer with Kita No Taiko, Alberta's first Japanese drum group.

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