Rev. Guo Cheen, right, attended the 2009 Parliament of World's Religions in Melbourne, Australia, as a representative of Seattle's Northwest Interfaith Community Outreach and the Compassion Action Network.
What began as an afterthought to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (and perhaps as a thinly veiled strategy for Christianity to display its expected superiority), the first World’s Parliament of Religions turned out to be a watershed for Buddhism’s arrival in the West. According to Rick Fields, author of How the Swans Came to the Lake, Buddhist history in America began with “the Parliament” and its authoritative Buddhist representatives from the East, most notably Shuku Soyen, D.T. Suzuki and other great thinkers.
One hundred years later, the next Parliament of World’s Religions reconvened in Chicago, continuing to meet every five years since then. The 2009 Parliament took place this December in Australia, co-hosted by the Melbourne city government. Representatives of UNICEF and other major UN agencies, as well as a team from the Obama administration’s Faith Based Initiatives office, were present.
The power of faith traditions, especially as a collective, and the importance of communication among religions stand out in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the face of financial, environmental and energy crises. I did not know how many more five-year spans I would have (let alone five more breaths), so I was itching to be under the same roof with the expected 10,000 representatives from more than 200 wisdom traditions around the world. Representing Northwest Interfaith Community Outreach and the Compassionate Action Network, I was ready to exchange ideas.
One of my primary motivations for attending the Parliament was to see how and what other Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachers were offering on the world stage. The most popular Buddhist leader at the Parliament was, of course, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He did not speak publicly until the final day, during the closing plenary. Under heavy security, His Holiness urged: “Socialize less and act more!”
Increasingly recognized is the work of Master Hsin Tao, founder of the international Buddhist-Muslim dialogues and the Museum of World’s Religions. His organization and a number of other Buddhist organizations founded in Taiwan were supporters of the Parliament.
Among the more than twenty Community Night events offered by the various religious communities of Melbourne, the Buddhist community night at Quang Minh Temple was a show of pure generosity, complete with dragon dances, a twelve course entrée dinner, nonstop performances with applause at a decibel meeting the screaming highs of the party, and a slate of Asian monks congratulating each other on the funds they are donating to this temple’s building expansion. I seemed all too sober for the occasion, since as a nun I do not partake in dinner.
The Chinese Han Transmission Tantrayana Buddhist group was a major attraction on the Melbourne Exhibition Center floor. Its rituals integrated martial arts strength and performance moves. Among the clashes of gong, however, a silence loomed over the recent excommunication and controversy over the ordination of Theravadan nuns in Perth, the role of Buddhist women in leadership and the deeper intrafaith understanding among Buddhists.
Buddhism appeared a model minority on the world stage of faiths. Meditation, deep listening and images of the Dalai Lama seemed everywhere and quoted, integrated or rediscovered in spiritual and faith traditions. Yet there were relatively few sessions where the deeper Buddhist teachings were explored. Very often, interfaith discussions stemmed from a theological perspective and I sensed an undercurrent of power imbalance.
Perhaps this is why it is important for interfaith and intrafaith groups to act in concert for a cause. One issue I advocated for prior to the Parliament was that of the monks and nuns evicted from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam. Velcro Ripper’s video, Prayers for Bat Nha, documented some of the atrocities directed at Thich Nhat Hanh’s sangha. I was grateful to the Council for having Thich Nhat Hanh speak via the web, for showing Velcro’s video twice, and for the sacred sites display that included Bat Nha Monstery as a way of raising awareness.
An interfaith group of us gathered to brainstorm and act on ways to help the Bat Nha monks and nuns and sent what one representative monk exiled from Bat Nha asked for, messages of support from Parliament participants in a video.
The Parliament has been a widening experience, expanding our hearts and minds so we are more inclusive and so we embrace our differences. A deepening journey of us as individuals and Buddhists collectively appears necessary to continue our history-making in the West and in the global interfaith movement. I hope to delve deeper into the treasures of Buddhist teachings, the theologies of non-Buddhist religions, and the bridge-building that enhances the enriched understanding of our individual faiths. Another goal is networking among North American Buddhists.
Though the next Parliament of World’s Religions will not convene until 2014, let us continue to drink the nectar of one another’s growing wisdom. Join local and international networks, including the Parliament of World Religions’ new social network, PeaceNext!
Links to topics in this article:
The Parliament’s messages of support for Bat Nha:
Additional photos & video:
Contributor: Reverend Guo Cheen.
Photo: Copyright Ray Messner.