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Conference joins Buddhists, Christians

In search of common ground between the Buddhist and Catholic traditions of prayer and meditation, monks, nuns and religious scholars have come together at a monastery in rural Kentucky.

The spiritual terrain they are exploring is fertile indeed, seeded with everything from the Dalai Lama's ideas about balancing prayer and social action to a Japanese Buddhist's likening of the crucifix to a koan, the mystical riddle used in Zen training.

"It is so important to see people can come to the same insights from different traditions," said Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is moderating the weeklong conference, which concludes today. "It was so refreshing to see the Buddhists push through to insights we would never credit them with. The ground we share gets wider and wider and wider."

The Gethsemani Encounter, building on decades of Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, is the largest monastic summit since a historic 1968 gathering in Bangkok, Thailand.

The event, hosted by the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, honors its most famous resident, the late Thomas Merton, a monk, author and student of Buddhism. Merton spoke at the Bangkok conference just hours before he was electrocuted in a freak accident at the cottage where he was staying.

"I always considered him a strong bridge between Buddhism and Christianity," said the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, who became fast friends with Merton in meetings just before the Bangkok conference. "His sudden death was a great loss. Today, here, we are fulfilling one of his wishes."

In addition to the Dalai Lama, the conference includes representatives of other branches of Buddhism from Asia and the United States. Catholic participants include Trappist and Benedictine monastics as well as scholars.

Several participants have helped spread the practice of "centering prayer," a method of twice-daily meditation that has grown in popularity among Christian laity.

The Dalai Lama's talks have been a high point of the conference. Deliberately avoiding debates on arcane doctrine, he asserted in sketchy but plain-spoken English that members of different religions should not try to convert one another, but rather exchange ideas, study each other's traditions and conduct pilgrimages to each other's shrines.

"I feel the variety of religion is much better," he said.

A discussion of Buddhist and Catholic ideas about anger, the Dalai Lama said, left him particularly impressed.

The Rev. Basil Pennington, a Trappist who has written extensively on centering prayer, said when he feels overwhelmed by anger, he stops what he is doing, goes into a room and "starts centering." He noted that anger often results from "attachment" to something, drawing a parallel to the core Buddhist teaching that suffering results from attachment to desires.

Several Catholics replied that meditating on the crucifix and the sufferings of Jesus is central to their prayer life. One noted the apparent helplessness of Jesus on the cross resembled the "uselessness of meditation."

Then Buddhists took up the topic. Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., said the crucifix seems to represent the first of the Buddha's "Four Noble Truths" _ that all humans suffer. "It seems like that is the common ground," he said.

Sister Mary Margaret Funk, a Benedictine nun from Beech Grove, Ind., asked the Dalai Lama, who is encouraging Tibetan monastics to become more socially involved, how he reconciles the apparent conflict between prayer and social action.

The Dalai Lama had no simple solutions, but said he recommends a "50-50" split between prayer and action. Buddhists are far too inclined to withdraw from the world, he said.

"We have to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters," he said. "We should have more socially engaged activities."