Thursday, December 02, 2010

Now, plus or minus 50 years

Another interesting session of "Religion in Dialogue." MH, a Catholic priest who is also an authorized Zen teacher, came to class today. It was he who recommended Knitter's Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, whose last chapters and conclusion we read for today's class. Knitter (who, we learned in the conclusion, while still a Catholic theologian has recently also taken Refuge in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition) is a champion of what he calls religious "double belonging," but it was much more interesting to have a double-belonger in the room with us!

Actually, double-belonging doesn't really describe MH fully, whose calling to be a Catholic priest has not swerved since he was 13. (Knitter left the priesthood after a quarter century, though he's still a Catholic theologian.) The Zen tradition in which MH received the dharma transmission is an American Soto tradition led by Roshi Bernie Glassman which doesn't require that one become a Buddhist: "Zen transcends Buddhism." MH is one of several Catholic priests who've become authorized teachers in this tradition - not Zen priests, he stressed - and he leads both masses, centering prayer and Zen meditation sessions at his church. His friend Knitter would describe MH as an instance of religious double belonging, MH said, but for him there's never been question that the Catholic call is the major one. On the other hand, Zen practices have immeasurably deepened his Catholic practice. (And not only Zen: MH is a serious student of yoga, and is also familiar with Kabbalah.) And ultimately, there's just one reality, to which all traditions try to deepen our relation, and everything you need to know is right here in the Now - though it may take us 5 minutes or 50 years to understand that.

Students were fascinated by MH and his journey. It isn't every day you meet someone who spent 22 years as a Carthusian, not to mention has gone on to build such interesting religious bridges (all practice-based, not just theory) - and received the dharma, too! They asked about his sense of vocation, how he decided to become a priest, a monastic, how his family responded, and then how he decided to return to society, if that was difficult, etc. "It makes me realize I've been really lazy in my religious life so far," said one. Other questions were about his religious explorations (not syncretism, which he cited Swidler as rightly deploring), whether he felt conflict or contradiction (never), had encountered negative responses (none, but he doesn't have a web presence which would attract hateful "pajamahadeen"), how he would talk to an exclusivist, even what his politics were. Two students with Southern Baptist sympathies became nearly inquisitorial though in a more baffled than aggressive way: but doesn't the Bible say that only...? (it's a hard book to read, symbolic, requiring prayer and study), how do you understand being saved? (saved from what?), the afterlife? (you mean eternal life, 'afterlife' sounds like an afterthought: eternal life starts now), heaven and hell? (some people live in them already now, and nothing is infinite but God). I'll be interested to see what they made of his responses!

We ended with a few minutes of silence, punctuated by the chiming of a little bell he uses as a Zen teacher.

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