During the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, we came to know one another over the several days of last week. I could feel in a real way we had become friends with each other. But there were some people you loved from the moment of meeting them – and I have to say for me, they were the women.
Of all the Catholics participating the dialogue, there were three women, two laypersons Susan and Lorraine, and one nun, Sister Anne, my roommate for the conference. All of them are outstanding in different ways in their respective positions with the Church. I could say I met the cream of the crop, but I have a feeling they are representative of many, many lay and monastic women.
On the first day of the dialogue, we began with meditation and only Anne with her seiza bench got on the floor with me (using a spare pillow from our room). I expected at least some of the Buddhist monastics would meditate on the floor but everyone seemed comfortable in chairs. When I sit in most chairs, I’m too short-legged to plant my feet on the floor and although some of the Buddhist monks and nuns were able to fold their legs sitting in the chairs, I’m afraid if I did half-lotus or seiza in any molded seat chair that I could easily fall out or over. Only sitting on the floor lets me feel grounded. In the following days that all began with meditation, only Mushim (a former monastic) got on the floor, using a folded blanket as her cushion.
From meditation each day we moved to the chapel for mass. For that first mass, without thinking I just noticed where Anne and Susan were sitting and went to sit with “my buds.” When mass started I realized they were sitting in the front row because they had roles in conducting the mass – Anne led the singing and Susan did the readings. Yet the fact that I gravitated towards them, showed I felt a kinship beyond the labels of Christian versus Buddhist.
[photo taken at the Vatican]
Just as impressive as the Catholic women were the Buddhist female monastics. Although they had the same shaved heads and robes as the monks of Chinese and Vietnamese lineages, they were more like the Catholic women – open-minded and warm-hearted, confident without acting authoritative, and exhibiting a lot of creativity and resourcefulness. I hate to be critical, but I was surprised that Buddhist monks much younger than me came off sounding like old fuddy-duddies, so behind in acknowledging sexual/gender diversity and the need to speak up for the disenfranchised. The male Buddhists seemed to be lagging a couple centuries behind the most conservative Catholic men.
After the dialogue, some of us noted that the male Buddhist and Catholic men expressed views that the female followers would find hard to agree with. We said maybe for the next Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, we women should get together and talk about the concerns we share, such as advocating for equality. Apparently a lot of men, no matter what their religion, don’t see much wrong with enjoying a privileged position. And while historically religion has been used to justify that privilege, women have been at the forefront in recapturing the message of equality in both Christianity and Buddhism.