The picture above was sent to me recently by a dear friend. It shows the only meeting between two of my spiritual heroes: Thomas Merton and D. T. Suzuki. I read my first book by Merton when I was 14 years old, The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography. I read my first book by Suzuki when I was 17, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. The same year, I read their only collaboration, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Over forty years later I recently re-read that collaboration, with the attendant realization that I didn’t know what they were talking about so many years ago. I’m grateful for the chance to engage them once again.
For me, their texts were the beginning of a lifelong appreciation of interfaith dialogue, one that I enjoyed professionally in my last years as a clergyman, when I was the Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Director of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Although Orthodoxy is less interested, generally, in interfaith dialogue as opposed to the ecumenical version, I always preferred the former. For me, it was always more satisfying to engage someone outside my sphere – from another spiritual galaxy, if you will. Ecumenical dialogue has the drawback of always boiling down the richness of traditions to the lowest common denominators. Interfaith dialogue challenges you to think outside your own private and sometimes privileged box.
The encounter with other religious and spiritual traditions who do not recognize any centrality of Christ to a valid and experientially real encounter with the Divine is a great challenge for any Christian. Many are taught that non-Christians, “heathen,” must be converted to belief in Christ. Exclusivity and a monopoly on the “truth” block us from any consideration of the other’s point of view. This is why interfaith dialogue is so vital, especially in the world we live in today, one that is becoming more and more tribal, parochial, and xenophobic.
The first principle of interfaith dialogue is that neither party asserts the correctness of their view for the other party. It allows for openness to ideas, perspectives, view, and consideration that may never have occurred otherwise. The gift is in the listening. And when you listen with “ears to hear” as Jesus said, you would be amazed at how transformative the experience can be.
In 1968, just one month before his untimely death at age 53, Thomas Merton traveled to Dharamsala, India, where the young 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso had established the Tibetan community in exile. They had three encounters over an eight-day stay by Merton. The Dalai Lama wrote this of Merton in his own autobiography:
“I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. …[I]t was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian’.” (Freedom in Exile, pg. 189)
The second principle of interfaith dialogue is that there is no expectation that the dialogue will actually achieve any result. The dialogue is its own reward. But if the relationship is sincere and grounded in a desire to connect, there are spaces – hitherto unknown – that open up within, which provide you with room to grow as a person of faith, of hope, and of love. The dialogue prepares you to understand your connectedness and interrelatedness to others, to “interbeing,” as Thich Nhat Hanh (another friend of Merton) has so eloquently put it.
When you know, when you viscerally feel that you are in relation to the world and the world is such to you, then you begin to live as Jesus did, for he found a way to connect to everyone he encountered, even when they rejected him. This is what makes the miracle of the Cross and Resurrection possible. If he did not love all of us, and know that his flesh was our flesh, he would not have been able to die with such love and forgiveness for all. And the power of that love was so great, that it could not be destroyed. He had to rise from the dead; it was not possible for death to hold him.
Christians have in Merton a great and saintly example of how to meet the other and go beyond oneself, even as Jesus did. Dialogue with those you do not know, and though you may fear and even hate them – this is the first step to the realization of what it means to be the Body of Christ.
“If you only love those who love you, what grace is that for you?” (Matthew 5:46)