VOLUME XI:2 July - December 2021


Scholarship in Service of Interreligious Understanding

Donald W. Mitchell has dedicated many decades of service to building interreligious understanding and improving relationships among followers of different religious paths, especially with Buddhists and Muslims.  Recently Don has published two retrospective books, My Life of Dialogue: Engaging Buddhists and Muslims, in which he looks back on his long history of interreligious engagement,[1] and My Dark Nights: Encounters with God, a personally revealing memoir of his moving spiritual journey through difficult times.[2]  The publication of these two books invites reflection on Don’s distinguished career.
Conversion and Focolare
Don begins My Life in Dialogue with an account of his early struggles and religious conversion.  When he was a beginning scholar, he practiced Zen Buddhism for a time under the guidance of Robert Aitken in Honolulu, who taught him to live in the present, accepting good and bad experiences: “Life is like falling from a waterfall.  Sometimes we are upright.  Sometimes we spin out of control.  But we are always in the waterfall.”[3]  At the Fifth East-West Philosophers Conference in 1969, Don met Keiji Nishitani and Masao Abe, leaders of the Kyoto School of Japanese Buddhism who engaged in intense dialogue with Christian theologians and Western philosophers. 
When Don was going through a very difficult period in his life, he turned to a Catholic priest, Leo Haigerty, for guidance.  In 1974 Don entered the Catholic Church, receiving the initiatory sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist on the same day. He continued to practice zazen, encouraged by  Brother David Steindl-Rast to be patient and entrust the process of his spiritual growth to God. Zen leader Katagiri Roshi endorsed this approach, saying, “Just be patient and it will come to you.” [4]
When Don came to know people at the Focolare Center in Chicago, he learned about the spiritual path of their founder, Chiara Lubich, which began with her religious experiences during the devastation of World War II.  Moved by the emphasis on compassion in both Focolare and Buddhism, Don went to the headquarters of Focolare in Loppiano, Italy, for three months.  When Don met Chiara Lubich, she personally encouraged him to pursue dialogue with Buddhists, looking for what can unite.[5]  Lubich enjoyed a warm relationship with Nikkyo Niwanō, a co-founder of the Japanese Buddhist movement Risshō Kōsei Kai, and Don would later help to develop closer relations between the followers of Focolare and Risshō Kōsei Kai.  At the suggestion of his friend and mentor Raimon Panikkar, Don also studied Christian spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.  Don’s early experiences equipped him with a familiarity with Buddhist thought and practice, as well as a practical lay Catholic spirituality that emphasized community, interreligious understanding, and love.
Dialogue with Masao Abe and the Kyoto School
As a member of the Department of Philosophy at Purdue University, Don helped Masao Abe and John B. Cobb, Jr., organize the Third Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter, which met at Purdue in October 1986 to explore “Notions of Ultimate Reality in Buddhism and Christianity.”[6]  It was at this conference that I first met him.  When the groundbreaking series of Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounters led to the formation of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, Don was one of the founding members.  For many years he edited the “News and Notes” of the society’s journal, Buddhist-Christian Studies and played a vital role in the life of the society.
Don’s strong background in both Eastern and Western philosophy prepared him to become a close associate of Masao Abe.  Abe wrote a provocative essay, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” in which he approached the Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) in light of Mahayana perspectives on emptying.[7]  Abe interpreted sunyata not as a noun naming a thing, “emptiness,” but rather as a verb naming a ceaseless activity, “emptying”; he compared this dynamic to the meaning of kenosis (“emptiness” or “emptying”) in the Letter to the Philippians.[8]  Abe used to ask Christian interlocutors whether they could affirm that God is emptiness or emptying.  Hans Küng and Wolfhart Pannenberg responded in the negative; but Don’s engagement with Abe led to him to see that “a response could not be adequately made at just the theological level, it had to be made at the spiritual level as well.  Kenosis is not just a theological category, it is also a central aspect of Christian spiritual/mystical life.  In a similar way in Buddhism, Emptiness is not just to be contemplated but also lived.”[9]  This insight has shaped all of Don’s writings and activities for interreligious understanding ever since.
Don proposed an extended Christian response to Abe’s question in Spirituality and Emptiness: The Dynamics of Spiritual Life in Buddhism and Christianity, meditating on kenosis in dialogue with representatives of the Kyoto School.[10]  Considering creation as the kenosis of the Father, doing so in dialogue with Kitaro Nishida, the founder of the Kyoto School, Don cited Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Thomas Merton. He suggested that Christians can experience not only the fullness of God in creation through being but also the emptying of God as a mystical Void (23).  Don cautioned against simply adopting Buddhist categories to interpret Christian experience and called instead for a dialogue that respects the unique differences of each tradition: “So for the Christian, the mystery of the Void on the near side opens into the mystery of the Trinity on the far side” (25).  In response to critical questions from James Fredericks about his use of language, Don clarified that in Christian mystical experience the Void is not a thing but rather “an activity, a ‘creative kenosis,’ a dynamic ‘non-being’ that is the Ground of Being.”[11] 
In the same book Don reflected on Christian understanding of the fall of humanity as he engaged in dialogue with Keiji Nishitani’s analysis of modern estrangement and the dissatisfactory condition (dukkha) of life.  In dialogue with Abe, Don interpreted redemption as the kenosis of God the Son, and in conversation with Hajime Tanabe he viewed sanctification as the kenosis of the Holy Spirit.  Continuing the discussion in dialogue with Yoshinori Takeuchi, Don interpreted personal transformation in Christian spirituality as the kenosis of the individual and bringing together the perspectives of Shin’ichi Hisamatsu and Chiara Lubich, he concluded with a vision of communal Christian spirituality as the kenosis of humankind.  The book is a model for acknowledging and respecting profound differences while seeking ways to connect, collaborate, and learn together.  Don’s continuing relation with Abe led him to publish an essay on the relation between Abe’s early spiritual struggles and his mature philosophy[12] and to edit a major overview of Abe’s contributions with essays from more than thirty authors influenced by Abe.[13]
Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
Don’s expertise in dialogue soon brought him international recognition, including from leaders in the Vatican.  In 1993 Don assisted Masao Abe and his wife Ikuko Abe in planning for their visit to the Vatican, where Abe was finally able to pose his famous question about God and emptying to theologians working in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  In an animated discussion with Abe, both Piero Coda and Jacques Servais SJ, advisors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirmed that properly understood, Catholics could affirm that God is emptiness or emptying, though both sides recognized that the meaning would be different from what it was in Mahayana Buddhism.  Abe was very moved by his meetings with these theologians and with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and especially by his semiprivate audience with Pope John Paul II, all of which Don had helped to make possible.[14]
In the 1990s Francis Cardinal Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), and his aides hoped to organize an international official Buddhist-Catholic dialogue.  This project took on added importance in 1994 when some comments of Pope John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope offended many Buddhists and strained Buddhist-Catholic relations.  In the aftermath, Theravada leaders in Sri Lanka boycotted the pope’s visit there in 1995.  Seeking to improve relations, the leaders of the PCID called upon Don as a resource person in organizing the first international Buddhist-Catholic dialogue at Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan from July 31 to August 4, 1995.  Don played a critical role in drafting the final statement, which was the first official Vatican document co-authored with Buddhists, and probably the first Vatican document drafted with followers of any other religious tradition.[15]  The final statement sets forth a respectful description of Buddhist and Catholic perspectives and the relationship between them. 
Don also participated in the second international Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, held 1998 at Asirvanam Benedictine Monastery near Bangalore, India, where he discussed “Christian Kenosis,” offering an overview of various perspectives and concluding with the meaning of kenosis in the communitarian spirituality of Chiara Lubich.[16]  Don attended the third international Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, which met in 2002 in Tokyo in collaboration with the Buddhists of the Risshō Kōsei Kai  movement.  Recently, when PCID published a retrospective volume of essays on the preceding quarter-century of dialogue with Buddhists, Don wrote an important overview of “Leading Scholarship on Buddhist-Christian Dialogue.”[17]  Don has also written a wide-ranging introduction to Buddhist experience designed for a Western audience, which includes statements from many Buddhist leaders.[18]
Monastic Interreligious Dialogue
In addition to his service to the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies and the Vatican, for many years Don served as an invaluable advisor to the board of the North American Commission of Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique•Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.  He played an important role in organizing the historic, weeklong encounter of Buddhist and Catholic monastic leaders at Gethsemani Abbey in 1996, where he delivered a talk on “God, Creation, and the Spiritual Life,” engaging Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan perspectives in dialogue.  He suggested that “just as the original fact of the unity of life bursts forth in the Zen realization of the True Self, so too the ultimate fact of the trinitarian unity of God at the Ground of life bursts forth in Christ’s realization of himself in us.”[19]  Don and James A. Wiseman edited the papers and spontaneous comments of the participants into a volume that has become a standard reference point for Buddhist-Christian exchange.[20]
Don continued to assist the North American MID board in 2002 in the planning of the second Gethsemani Encounter, which focused on the sources of suffering and Buddhist and Catholic responses. Afterward he and Jim Wiseman edited the remarks of the participants together with texts of Pope John Paul II and His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama in another important volume.[21]  In 2008 Don helped to organize the third Gethsemani Encounter, which focused on Buddhist and Catholic resources for responding to environmental calamity.[22]
Relations with Muslims
One might think that Don’s countless contributions to Buddhist-Christian relations would be sufficient for one lifetime; but during the time of great tension after the violent attacks on September 11, 2001, Don moved into engagement with Muslims.  He worked with the U.S. State Department to build trust and understanding between Americans and Muslims around the world.  Even though dialogue with Muslims was a relatively new area for Don, he was a fast learner; and he brought much experience from his years in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. 
Don organized a series of visits of global Muslim leaders to the United States, arranging for them to meet political, academic, and religious leaders and learn about how Muslims practice Islam in the United States today.[23]  He also organized visits of American Muslims and their American dialogue partners to meet Muslim communities in other nations and to discuss Muslim-Christian relations in the United States.  I was a member of the delegation organized by Don that visited Muslims in Thailand in 2009.  The Muslim leaders described their experiences of living in the United States, which were usually more positive than many Thai Muslims expected. I described my own friendly relations with Muslims in dialogues; it amazed some of the Thai Muslims that a Catholic priest could be friends with Muslims in the United States.  Don’s description of these and many other experiences in My Life of Dialogue: Engaging Buddhists and Muslims offers a model of how interreligious dialogue can build trust and understanding even in very challenging conditions.
Dark Nights of the Soul
In addition to his public engagement in interreligious encounters, Don makes a significant contribution to Christian spirituality in his autobiographical book, My Dark Nights: Encounters with God, which details his personal spiritual journey through many challenges.  Most discussions of the Dark Night of the Soul have come from members of Catholic religious orders; there is relatively little literature in this area written by lay Catholics.  Here again Don is a pioneer.
Don opens his discussion by noting that each of us is unique as a gift of God but also incomplete because we have distorted our identity into a false self.  Don emphasizes the teaching of John of the Cross that realizing our true self is not our own accomplishment but a gift from God.[24]  Because the Light of God is so overwhelming to human consciousness, humans experience God’s guidance in a situation of Darkness that John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul; the process is painful but tends toward growth through the healing of memories, allowing freedom to live in the present.
As Don went through a series of Dark Nights, he repeatedly sought guidance in the image of Jesus Forsaken on the Cross, which was so important for Chiara Lubich: “Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare, discovered the presence of Jesus Forsaken in her own suffering and the suffering of others. . . . Suffering became the space for her spiritual encounter and union with Jesus Forsaken.  For us living Chiara’s spirituality, this is also true.”[25] Looking back on his journey, Don recognized at a certain point that he needed to be healed but he feared what this would mean for him.  In his own time of crisis, Don became more and more sensitive to the suffering of others: “It was as though God was using my own suffering as a window in my soul through which I could see more clearly and compassionately the suffering of others.  Perhaps my pride was being broken down and I could identify with those in need in a new way.”[26]  He kept turning to the image of Jesus Forsaken on the Cross and his cry of abandonment (Matthew 27:46).
Studying John of the Cross under the guidance of Michael Buckley helped Don see that what seemed to be the absence of God could actually be a new form of God’s work within him.  When he worried about his failings, his spiritual guides urged him not to dwell on them but to turn to the mercy of God.  In prayer Don moved from fear to trust in God; in moments of panic, he turned to Jesus Forsaken and found peace.  With new insight into himself, Don began to suffer less.  He became more sensitive to the power of evil in the world but also more and more grounded in the presence of God and more compassionate towards others who are suffering.  The traditional Benedictine practice of lectio divina led him to deeper states of prayer that reminded him of deep Zen sitting: “I was aware that I was being made peaceful and quiet—it  was not something I did but something that was happening to me.  It was in this latter kind of contemplative prayer brought about by God that led me to begin to find a new relationship with Him.”[27]
His spiritual guide Dan O’Hanlon taught him a traditional Chinese saying that became very important for his journey: “If you try to catch a butterfly, it will always fly away.  But if you stop trying, it will come and sit on your shoulder.  Contemplation is freely given by God.  If I try to get God to make my prayer ‘successful,’ it will fly away. God’s time is not my time.”[28]  These principles of wisdom guided Don through all the challenges of the Dark Night to a deeper place of resting in the presence of God: “It was as if a door at the bottom of my consciousness opened by the grace of God and led me to a deeper place I had not known about from which I could pray in a new way.”[29]
Don came to see the wisdom of the First Noble Truth of Shakyamuni Buddha that everything is suffering, and he learned to see the presence of God in everyday experiences, especially in those who suffer.  Don came to sense that this Dark Night was preparing him to enter more deeply into interreligious dialogue “in a way that enables Jesus to speak from my heart, soft and gentle but with light of Truth that others can understand.”[30]  His growth in Catholic spirituality allowed him to experience a deeper oneness with Buddhists.  As Don came to greater self-acceptance he also entrusted himself to Jesus like a little child and felt the power of Jesus’s love within him.  The celebration of Easter took on new meaning, as fire, water, earth, and air became transvalued as experiences of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[31]
In a time when Don experienced deep anger, he turned to God in prayer and heard a response: “When you harden your heart, you cannot hear My voice.  Soften your heart with your tears and listen for My voice.”[32]  Don came to see forgiveness as a gift and experienced a deep level of healing of past wounds.  At one point he discussed his struggles with Masao Abe.  Abe inquired whether Christ remained present even when Don was not aware of Him.  Don responded: “I told him that while He seems to come and go, I know Christ is always there.  Abe said, ‘If that is the case, the advice in Buddhism is to entrust yourself fully to this new reality with humility.  The inner Reality, your true self, what we call your Buddha-nature, is slowly realizing itself in what you experience.’”[33]  Don came to see a new point of convergence between Buddhist and Christian paths: “I sensed that in both religions there is an act of faith, an act of letting go, or entrusting, of allowing.”[34]
Together these two books bear eloquent witness to how a life of dialogue can be both a path of profound personal growth and also a wide-ranging service to the global community.  For these two books, as well as for Don’s lifetime of contributions, we can all be grateful.
[1] Donald W. Mitchell, My Life of Dialogue: Engaging Buddhists and Muslims (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2021).
[2] Donald W. Mitchell, My Dark Nights: Encounters with God (New York: Crossroad, 2020).
[3] Mitchell, My Life of Dialogue, 4.
[4] Ibid., 9.
[5] Ibid., 13-14.
[6] Texts from this encounter were published in the journal, Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 48-168.
[7] Masao Abe, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” in The Emptying God and Dynamic Sunyata, ed. John B. Cobb, Jr., and Christopher Ives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 3-65.
[8] Ibid., 27-28,
[9] Donald W. Mitchell, “Dialogue and Unity,” in Masao Abe: A Zen Life of Dialogue, ed. Donald W. Mitchell (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1998), 130 (128-140).
[10] Donald W. Mitchell, Spirituality and Emptiness: The Dynamics of Spiritual Life in Buddhism and Christianity (New York: Paulist Press, 1991).
[11] Donald W. Mitchell, “A Response to James Fredericks,” The Eastern Buddhist, NEW SERIES 27/2 (1994): 141 (140-144).
[12] Donald W. Mitchell, “Masao Abe’s Early Spiritual Journey and his Later Philosophy,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 (2008): 107-110.
[13] Masao Abe: A Zen Life of Dialogue, ed. Donald W. Mitchell (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1998).
[14] Mitchell, “Dialogue and Unity,” 137-140.
[15] Mitchell, My Life of Dialogue, 70-76.  See also Donald W. Mitchell, “The Making of a Joint Buddhist-Catholic Statement,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 16 (1996): 203-208; the Taiwan Buddhist-Catholic Statement is on pages 206-208 of this essay.
[16] Donald W. Mitchell, “Christian Kenosis,” Pro Dialogo 100 (1999/1): 139-156.
[17] Donald. W. Mitchell, “Leading Scholarship on Buddhist-Christian Dialogue,” in Building a Culture of Compassion: Essays Celebrating 25 Years of the Vesak Message to Buddhists, ed. Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K. (Rome: Urbaniana University Press, 2020), 115-133.
[18] Donald W. Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience (3rd ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[19] Donald W. Mitchell, “God, Creation and the Spiritual Life,” in The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, ed. Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman (New York: Continuum, 1998), 31 (27-33).
[20] The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, ed. Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman (New York: Continuum, 1998).
[21] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Thomas Keating, Thubten Chodron, Joseph Goldstein, and Others, Transforming Suffering: Reflections on Finding Peace in Troubled Times, ed. Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman (New York: Doubleday, 2003); republished as Finding Peace in Troubled Times: Buddhist and Christian Monastics on Transforming Suffering, ed. Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman(New York: Lantern Books, 2010).
[22] Green Monasticism: A Buddhist-Catholic Response to an Environmental Calamity, ed. Donald W. Mitchell and William Skudlarek (New York: Lantern Books, 2010).
[23] Mitchell, My Life of Dialogue, 92-155.
[24] Mitchell, My Dark Nights, 1-2.
[25] Ibid., 3.
[26] Ibid., 9.
[27] Ibid., 24.
[28] Ibid., 23.
[29] Ibid., 26-27.
[30] Ibid., 37.
[31] Ibid., 53.
[32] Ibid., 66.
[33] Ibid., 84.
[34] Ibid., 84.
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