East and West Embrace

By Hans Hallundbaek


Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they came from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling (Famous English writer, 1865-1936), A Ballad of East and West

East and West embraced last May in the Romanesque, Queen of Apostles Chapel at the Roman Catholic, Maryknoll Mission Institute in Ossining, New York. Visiting monks and nuns from the Chuang Yen Monastery intoned melodious, rhythmic prayers and chants, filling the spacious chapel with Buddhistic sound sensations, reverberating under the majestic Christian alter baldachino.

Resident priests and sister of the hosting Maryknoll community led by music director Patricia Copeland responded with a music and prayer liturgy for all nations of the earth, and concluding with a welknown prayer for peace by the revered Catholic Saint, Francis of Assisi.

For one day, East and West had joined together a common concern: prayers for world peace.

In his opening remarks, Father Raymond Finch, M. M., Superior General of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, greeted the gathering by citing the inscription in the Maryknoll Rotunda, “Peace to those who enter, and Salvation to those who Leave” He continued, May your visit strengthen our bonds of friendship, and remind us once again we are all brothers and sisters.? There has always been both tension and attraction between East and West. For almost a century men and women from Maryknoll have bridged that gap through mission work in Far East countries. This bridge building now continues at home.

As foreign religions are casting roots on American soil, it requires a new stance for religious organizations in the host country. For Maryknoll it was not difficult to welcome Buddhist monks and nuns from their monastery in neighboring Kent, New York. After all, Buddhist dominated countries from Thailand and Cambodia to China and Japan have been mission fields for Maryknoll since its inception.

The very first Maryknoll contingency of missionaries went to China in 1917, and ties between China and Maryknoll have always been strong, as is evidenced by Maryknoll having the largest Chinese motif building in America.

At the same time, the Buddhist Association of the United States has step-by-step constructed the Chuang Yen Monastery 25 miles north of Maryknoll. Today it houses the largest Buddha statue in the western world; a gleaming white, five story high representation of the founder of Buddhism, meditating on a lotus flower.

While size of respective material manifestations is of questionable importance, it instills respect to recall that Christianity and Buddhism, today are considered the two largest religions in the world.

It was on this background that a dialogue for common ground was initiated between the two religious organizations, and a first meeting scheduled at the Chuang Yen Monastery.

That meeting took place in late March of last year on the initiative of Dr. Ann Reissner, Director of Study at the Center for Mission and Research at Maryknoll.

The day chosen happened to coincide with the worst snow storm of the year. Four-wheel-drive vehicles had to be organized to bring the visiting contingency of 35 Maryknollers the last one quarter mile into the secluded hills of the 225 acres monastery compound. Dr. C. T. Shen, co-host of the visit and Vice-president of the Buddhist Association of the United States, remarked dryly, orking for world peace is not easy.? Once inside the peaceful, incense filled Kuan-Yin Hall, named after the Goddess of compassion in Chinese mythology, the perils of mother nature was soon forgotten as the peace prayers got under way. The prayer ceremony was followed by a tour of the monastery and a visit to the Great Buddha Hall.

Following lunch, a lively dialogue on similarities and differences between the two religions was organized in the Monastery 100,000 volume Library specializing in eastern sacred scriptures.

As if to indicate approval of this first dialogue between the two religions, the weather gods responded most positively when the Buddhists paid a return visit to Maryknoll in May. It was a spring day of overwhelming beauty and promise.

This promise was mirrored in the events of the day. After prayers for world peace ceremony in the main chapel, a relaxed lunch was served on the patio outside the Founder? Room overlooking the majestic Hudson River and the distant Catskill Mountains.

The differences between Buddhist and Christian traditions are numerous. As an example, Buddhist traditionally observe strict silence while eating, a ritual which the Maryknollers experienced in their winter visit to the monastery. In turn, the Buddhists seemed also to enjoy the relaxed friendship-building lunch on the Maryknoll patio. True to Buddhist requirements lunch was in both cases strictly vegetarian.

However, similarities also abound. In the prayer meetings a friendship had developed between Buddhist nun, Rev. Tar Chung and Maryknoll music director, Patricia Copeland. Their common language was love of song and music. At a recent camp for Chinese children, Patricia Copeland was invited to the monastery to sing with the youngsters. Together with Rev. Tar Chung she taught them the Christian song, “This little light of mine.”

After a visit to the quarters of Maryknoll Sisters and the secluded nuns in the Maryknoll Cloister, it was time to depart. Farewell words were exchanged at the Departure Bell in the Maryknoll garden. This bell has a history as a 13th century Japanese Buddhist temple bell.

Abbot Ming Kuan, who was impressed by all he had learned about Maryknoll?extensive global mission activities, said, “You have much experience and background, but we are young and energetic; please teach us how we can serve, and make this a better world.”

While this is a great opening for further dialogue, one can also rightfully ask: Why should we seek exchange of views between each others religions? The renowned Catholic monk, poet and social critic, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) had a clear answer to this question when addressing the First Spiritual Summit in Calcutta shortly before his death: “My dear brothers and sisters; We are already one, But we imagine we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to become is what we already are.”

At these early meetings between Maryknoll and the Chuang Yen Monastery, the search for that unity is based on mutual respect for each others tradition and doctrine, while exploring unity on higher grounds, such as a mutual concern for world peace. The developing bonds between Maryknoll and the Buddhists came to a test in the face of suffering and adversity. In the disastrous flood of Chinese rivers in the fall of 1998, where thousands died and millions lost their homes, the Buddhist monks and nuns, initiated a six day prayer vigil at their Great Buddha Hall.

Under the leadership of Rev. William D. McCarthy, M. M., Maryknollers, together with representatives of other Christian communities in the area, came to mourn and pray with the Buddhist and help share their grief. All were reminded that the need for unity between people of faith is stronger in times of adversity; an experience transcending both Buddhism and Christianity.

Maybe Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Merton and the Superior General of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers all are right. Maybe East and West are destined to finally meet in friendship and peace. Maybe all it takes is the dedication and courage of strong men, and the wisdom and compassion of women singing in unity while teaching the new generation how to bring it about.

*This article, in a slightly modified version has been published also in the the Magazine of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, January 1999.

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