Volume XII:2 July - December 2022
An Experience of Hospitality
Spiritual Exchanges
between Christian and Zen Buddhist Monks
This article was written for a colloquium organized by the 'Institut des Sciences Théologiques des Religions' (ISTR) of the Institut Catholique de Paris on the experience of Toumliline (Morocco) that was held at the French Abbey of En Calcat                                                 in late August 2022.
The experience of reciprocal hospitality between Western Christian monks and Japanese Zen Buddhists during the ‘East-West Spiritual Exchanges’ is one of the chief characteristics of interreligious encounters between people who are more intentionally engaged in a spiritual quest. That is one of the reasons these exchanges deserve an in-depth study.
It may be a surprise to hear that encounters take place between monks from different continents and religions. Travelling abroad to meet followers of another religious tradition is not an essential element of the monastic vocation. Even if monks believe that hospitality is a sacred duty, their primary vocation is not encounter but solitude. However, in a world that is now so marked by what has been termed a “clash of cultures,” monks sense that they are now being called to be witnesses of dialogue.
In this presentation I want to show how the experience of encountering total strangers, no matter how fruitless that may have seemed in the past, can be an outstanding grace for contemporary monastic life and may also contribute to the development of our religious traditions.
The History of the ‘East-West Spiritual Exchanges
The program known as the ‘East-West Spiritual Exchange’ was launched by Christian missionaries in Japan. They wanted to show Buddhists that among Christians there were not only missionaries committed to works of charity, but also monks and nuns engaged in an intense spiritual quest. Thus, in 1979 some forty Buddhist monks went on pilgrimage to Europe. Monastic Interreligious Dialogue had been founded only a year beforehand, but it was already well established in many European countries. I was able to organize the reception of these monks by various monasteries, for instance, Maria-Laach, Westmalle, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, and Camaldoli. At the end of this first Spiritual Exchange, the Japanese participants left us a message in which they affirmed that they had discovered “disinterested charity and fervent faith in daily life.” They went on to say, “We were happy to find in you what we consider to be the fundamental religious value, which we call jihi (慈悲), which means love or compassion.” When they returned home, some members of the delegation authored books on what they had experienced and learned.
Four years later, in 1983, the Japanese organizers associated with the Institute for Zen Stuies (Zen Bunka) in Kyoto invited Christian monks and nuns for an extended stay in Zen monasteries. In 1987, we again welcomed about thirty Zen monks to monasteries in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. At the end of their time in Europe, they all gathered in Rome for a symposium at Sant’Anselmo presided over by Abbot Primate Viktor Dammertz, following which there was a private audience with Pope John Paul II. In his words of welcome, the Pope added a few words to the Christian monks who accompanied them:
In opening your houses and your hearts, as you have done these days, you follow well the tradition of your spiritual father, Saint Benedict. To your brother monks coming from across the world and from a very different religious tradition you apply the beautiful chapter of the Rule concerning the reception of guests. In doing so you offer a setting wherein a meeting of mind and heart can take place, a meeting characterized by a shared sense of brotherhood in the one human family that opens the way of ever deeper spiritual dialogue.”[1]
 He thus confirmed the direction we had taken. Thereafter, the exchanges continued to take place every four years until 2019. I am presently preparing the next one, which will take place in 2023.
This is not the place to speak about these meetings in detail. You will find a detailed account in Father Benoît Billot’s delightful book Voyage dans les monastères zen in which describes the second exchange. What I especially want to do here is highlight the fruit of these experiences of mutual hospitality. Each time we welcomed Zen monks to monasteries such as En Calcat, Bellefontaine, or Tamié, we were able to “offer them all the marks of humanity,” that Saint Benedict calls for when receiving guests. It was a joy to welcome them to dine with us, in our monastic refectory, in participate in our daily work, and also to join us when we gathered in choir for the Work of God, where our guests were touched by our willingness to help them find their way in our liturgical books.
The experience of Christian monks
I would especially like to dwell on what the Christian monks experienced when it was their turn to visit Zen monasteries in Japan. There they discovered the other side of hospitality: hospitality received.
One of the first impressions of the monastic participants from the West was how much they felt at home in Japanese monasteries, which are strikingly harmonious constructions, always blending in with their natural environment. No matter how much the scenery would change as the participants traveled from one location to another, they always found the same concern for harmony and respect in all of daily life, for the rhythm of the day, for liturgy, and for silence, - all sustained by an ardent commitment to the spiritual quest. We thus were able to recognize the great concerns that are common to all expressions of monastic life. The discovery of the universality of the monastic aspiration is a welcome way to strengthen our own monastic vocation.
Recognizing these commonalities, however, does not remove the pain brought on by disorientation. Strange kinds of food and lodging, fatigue, a language we do not understand, the difficulty of making inquiry about basic necessities—all of this ends up destabilizing us. At times, we are tempted to withdraw into a grumpy resignation, waiting for it all to be over. But it soon becomes clear that this situation of disarray and vulnerability can be a privileged opportunity for opening ourselves to abandonment and trust. We see how attentive and compassionate our hosts are. An intense relationship is created and even a certain collusion as it becomes obvious that, even for the Japanese monks, this way life can also be quite stressful. But when we wholeheartedly entrust ourselves to the kindness of our hosts, we experience the beauty of being welcomed unconditionally.
When the time came to say goodbye, we discovered how much this stay of only three or four weeks had brought us together. Beyond all the differences and incompatibilities, we discovered what I would call the ‘original brotherhood’ shared by all seekers of the absolute.
In the opinion of all the participants, this experience of receiving hospitality was a much stronger spiritual experience than that of offering the Buddhist monks a gracious welcome in our own monasteries. Our stay in a Zen monastery lasted only a few weeks, but the impact of this experience continues because of the inner dialogue that we carry within ourselves over the years.
This, it seems to me, is the most important message of Spiritual Exchanges: interreligious encounter is genuine and fruitful when it involves reciprocal hospitality. Dialogue in the sense of an exchange of words is, of course, always important and even essential, but hospitality given and received is the natural habitat of dialogue, the place where it can best flourish and bear fruit..
An interior hospitality
I would now like to describe in greater detail the more interior interreligious experience that monks can strive for, an ‘intra-religious’ encounter, to use the terminology of Raimon Panikkar.
It is true that some Christians believe that being hospitable to another religion (especially Buddhism) is dangerous, all the more dangerous if we are speaking of an inner openness to the spiritual riches of another tradition. That is why it is important to listen to those participants in the sixteen Spiritual Exchanges who testify that such a practice can be just and good. It is not necessary to be a monk to have this experience, but a serious spiritual commitment is needed if the experience is to bear fruit. Since the experience of each person is unique, I will not generalize but will only speak of what I have personally experienced at the level of ‘intra-religious’ encounter.
A few years before organizing the Spiritual Exchanges, I was able to spend several months in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. Because of this, I wanted to do something to make the experience I had possible for others as well. A Zen Master, Suzuki Sôchu, whom I had met in Rome, invited me to his monastery of Ryutaku-ji, located at the foot of Mount Fuji, where about thirty young monks lived. I accepted this invitation. My superiors were a little worried about my going there, but they trusted me. As soon as possible, I traveled to this monastery, determined to immerse myself in its Zen environment. For months I was the only Christian in this monastery, without contact with my Church and the sacraments. Only a small woolen Byzantine rosary for the Jesus prayer connected me to my tradition. But I had been a monk for twenty years, and a long life of prayer had familiarized me with the experience of emptiness. I knew and could verify that “nothing can separate us from the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
By participating fully in the life of the small community of this monastery, I confidently welcomed Buddhism into the heart of my spiritual life - at least what I could welcome, because there were elements I could not yet understand. I therefore followed the advice of a Zen koan, “If you can’t swallow it, at least don’t spit it out!” I didn’t try to absorb Buddhism, to metabolize it, as it were, but I deliberately exposed myself to this spiritual universe of the Buddha whose Master (the Rôshi) is the 84th generation heir. (His entire genealogy is recited every day).
I willingly allowed myself to be carried along by the Buddhist spirit as expressed in its monastic tradition. Life in this monastery was very demanding and rigorously communitarian: one never had a moment to oneself. It was not possible to take a break, to stand on the sidelines during hours of temple celebrations (reciting sutras), hard manual work, and a long periods devoted to zazen (silent meditation). I found beautiful concordances with the Benedictine life, and also many strange practices, difficult to bear, impossible to swallow. But I am full of gratitude for those who welcomed me there, and who put up with me despite my limited ability to become completely ‘Zen.’
Looking back, I have no doubt that this stay did in fact transform me. I can speak of my life in terms of a before and an after. But this transformation was not a distortion of who I am. Everything I  received, I received as one who was already well along the way of being formed by the Christian and Benedictine tradition. I was thus able to combine a radical attachment to Christ with an unconditional welcome of the other, doing so in His name. I am convinced that one can only be totally welcoming if one is first totally oneself. Without that, there is only amalgamation or fusion rather than a challenging and fruitful encounter.
Along with others, I have noticed that a true encounter can bring to the surface what lies deep within us. I was surprised to discover that the hospitality of Zen Buddhist monks allowed me to rediscover values that were still hidden or neglected in our own spiritual tradition. Encounter with another person is indeed necessary if what is only a possibility within us is to be revealed. In this regard, I use ceramics as an example. Potters take clay and turn it into a certain shape. After letting it dry, they carefully put the fragile form they have made into a kiln. After it has been fired and removed from the kiln, it is still the same object they put into the kiln; neither the material nor the shape has been changed. And yet, it is not the same. It is now solid, it has changed color, and it has even become sonorous. The radiant heat of the fire has revealed all its potentialities.
Something similar happens when we open ourselves to the radiation of a particularly enlightened person of our own tradition. But the shock of being ‘fired” by an encounter with people of another religion, or of none, can also be particularly revealing. To give one example, St. Benedict recognizes the importance of meditation and silence throughout his Rule. My sojourn in a Zen monastery challenged me to take this call very seriously by revealing to me the power of pure meditation (zazen) and the fruitfulness of absolute silence. At an even deeper level, I would point to the central question that St. Benedict asks the novice, a question that is directed to every monk: Are you “truly looking for God?” This is the question that the psalmist had already asked: “Where is your God?” (Ps. 41). When one has been immersed in a non-theistic universe (such as Buddhism), this question is particularly pregnant. Buddhism does not provide an answer, but it does sharpen the question, offering us a great challenge and an extraordinary opportunity, particularly at the present time.
During Pope Francis’ recent trip to Bahrain for an interfaith meeting, a journalist remarked, “They’re obviously not going to talk about theology!” This statement reflects public opinion: we no longer care about the religious quarrels that have poisoned our history. Most interreligious meetings now have humanitarian objectives. If we are to promote peace and the sharing of the world’s riches, we have to put aside and go beyond doctrinal differences. To make for a free and unhindered exchange, we will have to avoid—for the time being, at least—tackling the subjects that make people angry.
In the longer term, however, it should be obvious that meeting at the deepest level remains indispensable. Whatever one thinks of doctrinal differences, they cannot be hidden indefinitely; they must be accepted and addressed, because by ignoring them, they can all too easily paralyze the most heart-felt initiatives.
At the same time, the right circumstances are needed to make possible frank and open exchange on all subjects. This is why spiritual exchanges are so important at the present time. DIM•MID has gained some experience in organizing such meetings with the Zen Bunka in Kyoto. We are now preparing for the eighth exchange to take place 2023 and are looking for monks and nuns who would like to be participants.
Translated by William Skudlarek
[1]Pope John Paul II’s complete address can be found on the website of the Holy See.
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