An Interfaith Immersion
In recognition of the Interfaith “National Day of Prayer,” celebrated on May 2 in the United States, Brent Smith shares his reflections on the connection between his own faith of Roman Catholicism and his recent studies and experiences with Buddhism.
A few weeks ago I went to the Vajrayana Kadampa Buddhist Center in Oak Park, as part of a course assignment. As a practicing Catholic, the experience was quite – but not entirely – unusual. Upon entering the small, homey-building, I was immediately welcomed by a woman who prompted a donation and then asked that I remove my shoes and jacket. I was then shown the prayer space, found off to the right, on the other side of the small gift shop. I chose a chair behind the few zazen pillow seats in the front of the room. I was curious about the dozen or so large figurines placed upon shelves in the front. These shelves flank a big, square couch. I correctly assumed that the guru would sit atop this simple couch. The guru was an American, which I wasn’t surprised about at all because of prior coursework that introduced me to Buddhism in American. He had an upbeat and light-hearted personality. As he entered the room I followed the regulars who stood and held their hands together, fingers calmly pointed toward the guru.
The sermon he gave was rather simple and highly relatable. One theme was the acknowledgment and removal of suffering. A solution proposed by the guru is to smile more often, wherever you are. He told a story of when he was closing up another nearby Buddhist center. As a woman passed by him, he warmly smiled at her. She reacted with a look of concern and disgust. The guru said he thought to himself, “May this woman find peace in her life; may she suffer less in life.” Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” He also says, “Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s reflection mirrors the words of the guru at the Buddhist center.
Another part of this interfaith experience was the time spent in intentional meditation. I love this aspect of Buddhism. I have always had an affinity for silence and nonverbal prayer. While in meditation I tried to follow the insight of the guru, to let my thoughts come and go, without holding onto them at all. In the back of my mind I longed to participate in this meditation as a Buddhist, with a longing for Buddha-hood, focusing on care for all creatures. I sought mindfulness through mindlessness. Somewhat to my dismay I naturally used this time for focused prayer within the Christian tradition. By first freeing my mind of thoughts, I experienced clarified communion with the Body of Christ. I wanted to be Buddhist in this moment but could not let go of my Catholic roots.
Thich Nhat Hanh would reassure me that the meditation was a success, especially through the interfaith lens. He is noted for saying that he “always [encourages others] to practice [faith] in a way that will help them go back to their own tradition and get re-rooted. If they succeed at becoming reintegrated [into their original faith], they will be an important instrument in transforming and renewing [that] tradition.”
The guru at the Buddhist center in Oak Park told me that Dominican groups have visited other times as well. I first came across Buddhism in high school through the book Siddhartha, and even more so this past fall through a course taught by Dr. Hugh McElwain, and also through the documentary They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain. My visit to the Buddhist center has given me an even deeper understanding of the global reality of Buddhism in the 21st century.
I would like to conclude with a reflection on a similarity between Buddhism & Christianity, by Thich Nhat Hanh:
“In Buddhism, we speak of touching Nirvana with our own body. In Christianity, you can also touch the Kingdom of God with your body, right here and now. It is much safer than placing our hope in the future. If we cling to the idea of hope in the future, we might not notice the peace and joy that are available in the present moment. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.”
Brent Smith, Class of 2014, is double-majoring in Theology and Corporate Communication, and a student representative on the Dominican University Interfaith Cooperation Committee.