Dilatato Corde 3:1
January - June, 2013
Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi giving her Nobel lecture in Oslo on June 16, 2012.
Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi giving her Nobel lecture in Oslo on June 16, 2012.

Thomas Merton and Aung San Suu Ky

This article is a slightly abbreviated version of a paper delivered at the American Benedictine Academy conference on August 3, 2012. Held at St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota, the theme of the conference was "Seek Peace and Pursue It: Monasticism in the Midst of Global Upheaval."

There are three themes that I would like to address in this presentation. First, after providing a highly condensed history and overview of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, I will argue that dialogue is a fragile undertaking, one that demands effort and is often met with resistance. Second, I will respond to the fear that dialogue leads to the loss of one’s religious identity by maintaining that if the participants of religion A observe the principles of dialogue and shift their intention from the desire to convert those in religion B to a desire to help them take what they have learned from dialogue to deepen their commitment to and practice of their own religion, then this fear need not exist. Third, after noting that one of the great gifts Christians have received from Buddhist-Christian dialogue is the motivation to rediscover their own contemplative practices, contemplative Christian monastics are then challenged to balance contemplation with action. This is a tension similar to the tension between religion and politics. I focus on two figures who exemplify these themes in similar yet contrasting ways: Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-).

Buddhism and Christianity in Dialogue
Buddhist-Christian dialogue can contribute to seeking peace in both specific and general ways. In the specific sense, Buddhists and Christians can learn about each other, come to a better understanding of each other’s religion and how it influences their worldviews and cultures. They can establish respect for each other as equals and thus play a role in resolving conflicts. This specific sense may not be all that helpful at the present time since there are no major conflicts between Christians and Buddhists—at least none that I am aware of. Also, as important as it is for Christians to understand Buddhism, doing so still leaves major gaps in the understanding of Asian cultures, many of which are more influenced by Confucianism than Buddhism. But looking beyond the resolution of specific conflicts, I believe that Buddhist-Christian dialogue can contribute to seeking peace by illustrating general principles of dialogue. For Christians, dialogue with Buddhists shows us how our worldviews need to be examined and perhaps modified, but also how we can maintain our self-identity while being open to other worldviews.

The first insight I propose is the simple recognition that religions can be in dialogue rather than in competition. On one occasion I was talking with a friend about my studies, particularly about Jewish-Christian dialogue. I told her that not a lot of Christians know much about this dialogue, even though it has been going on for quite a while now. She replied, “Yeah, like 2,000 years.” However, Jewish-Christian relations before the mid-twentieth century cannot be called dialogue. Relations or interactions between religions are not the same as dialogue between religions. Missionary endeavors between religions are not the same as dialogue between religions. There can be relations between religions, but not all relations are dialogue.

Missionary endeavors used to be the primary means of interaction between religions. During those times, there were certainly isolated moments that could be called dialogue, but missionary efforts were based on the goal of gaining converts. To highlight the differences between interreligious relations and interreligious dialogue, Leonard Swidler proposed what he called “The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious, Interideological Dialogue,” first published in 1983. The first of these commandments is particularly insightful in emphasizing that those in dialogue must approach it with the intention of learning from the other:

The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly. . . . We enter into dialogue so that we can learn, change, and grow, not so we can force change on the other, as one hopes to do in debate.[1]

In 1893, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago hosted a World Parliament of Religions, an event often credited as initiating the modern form of interreligious dialogue.[2] Over half a century later, Thomas Merton, a Trappist of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, was one of the earliest Christian monastics following the Rule of Saint Benedict to take a serious interest in Asian religions, particularly Buddhism. Yet, his interest in Buddhism did not fully emerge until the last several years of his life, at the same time that the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were convening for the sessions of the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965. Nostra Aetate, the Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, is the key conciliar document for interreligious dialogue, although important themes also appear in Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, and Ad Gentes, the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church. A formal invitation to Benedictines to become involved in interreligious dialogue came in a letter of June 12, 1974, addressed to Rembert Weakland, Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, from Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, president of what is now called the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who noted that monasticism is a bridge between religions.[3] In 1978, Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) was established in North America along with Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique (DIM) in Europe.

In the last few decades, there have been factors working toward both the diminishing and the flourishing of interreligious dialogue. In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the prefecture of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation that included caution for the use of meditation techniques of Asian religions. The document specifically mentioned Zen, Transcendental Meditation, and Yoga, which, it said, are “methods of meditation of the non-Christian Far East which today are not infrequently adopted by some Christians also in their meditation.”[4] In 2000, the CDF issued the declaration, Dominus Iesus, warning against certain theological positions emerging in the attempt to articulate the relationship between Christianity and other religions, especially regarding the unique role of Jesus Christ as universal savior for all humanity. Several theologians writing on interreligious issues have received notifications from the CDF: Anthony De Mello, SJ, in 1998; Jacques Dupuis, SJ, for his book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, in 2001; and Roger Haight, SJ, for his book, Jesus Symbol of God, in 2004.

On the other hand, Pope John Paul II hosted representatives from diverse world religions at the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on October 27, 1986, stating, “Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.”[5]

In 1993, a second Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago in commemoration of the original event one hundred years before. At that Parliament MID hosted a session on Buddhist-Christian dialogue with the Dalai Lama in attendance. He suggested continuing the dialogue at Gethsemani Abbey, honoring the legacy of Thomas Merton.[6] Since then, Gethsemani Encounters, meetings of Buddhists and Christians for dialogue on designated themes have been held in 1996, 2002, and 2008. The one-hundred year anniversary of the Parliament of the World’s Religions was followed by more frequent gatherings in Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), with Brussels scheduled for 2014.[7]

Growth of interreligious dialogue has at times surged in direct response to violence and especially religious violence. History points to the sad reality that religions are slow to engage in dialogue with each other until horrific violence erupts and exposes the sheer necessity of dialogue. Dialogue did not emerge between Christians and Jews until World War II and the extermination of six million Jews under the Nazi regime forced Christians to confront the anti-Jewish rhetoric in Christian theology that had developed over the centuries.[8] The current quest to understand other religions and overcome violence through dialogue comes in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks perpetrated by members of al-Qaeda who espoused an extremist version of Islam. “The aftermath of September 11, 2001, only strengthened what can now be called a worldwide interreligious movement. . . . At a grassroots level, hundreds if not thousands of interreligious organizations have emerged in the last quarter of a century.”[9] Now, the momentum of interreligious dialogue appears stronger than ever and its necessity more imperative than ever.

The theme of the ABA convention two years ago was “Benedictines and Evangelization.” I do not wish to negate the work of Benedictines in roles of evangelization or dismiss the need for it. Since the emergence of interreligious dialogue, the question arises regarding whether Christians are still called to mission, evangelization and the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the unique and universal savior for all humanity. The Church now calls for both mission and dialogue, and the relationship between the two approaches is complex. Some of the issues are addressed in the documents Dialogue and Mission,[10] Redemptoris Missio,[11] and Dialogue and Proclamation.[12]

While evangelization takes conversion as its ultimate goal, interreligious dialogue must refrain from goals other than the establishing and nurturing of relationships. Another possible purpose for dialogue is, as Swidler mentioned, to learn from the other religion in order to deepen practice of one’s own religion. When the Dalai Lama accepted an invitation to offer his comments on selected Gospel passages at a John Main Seminar in 1994, one of the first things he stated was, “My main concern is this: how can I help or serve the Christian practitioner?”[13] He approaches dialogue with the understanding that the purpose of dialogue is for practitioners of religions to learn from each other and to deepen the practice of their own religion. He continues,

In general, I am in favor of people continuing to follow the religion of their own culture and inheritance. Of course, individuals have every right to change if they find that a new religion is more effective or suitable for their spiritual needs. But, generally speaking, it is better to experience the value of one’s own religious tradition.[14]

He provides an example of a woman who told him that “as far as this life is concerned she was Christian, but for the next life there was no alternative for her but Buddhism.”[15] His reaction was, “How complicated! If you are Christian, it is better to develop spiritually within your own religion and be a genuine, good Christian. If you are a Buddhist, be a genuine Buddhist. Not something half-and-half! This may cause only confusion in your mind.”[16]

Rediscovery of the Christian Contemplative Tradition through Dialogue
Interreligious dialogue can take place in a variety of ways. Dialogue and Proclamation identified the now familiar four forms in which dialogue is occurring and must continue:

a) The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.

b) The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people.

c) The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.

d) The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.[17]

Theological exchange is inevitably difficult because of the widely divergent doctrinal, philosophical or metaphysical positions between different religions. But, the dialogue of religious experience has been productive since we can learn about and from each other’s spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, asceticism or community life. Even though they may be expressive of worldviews that are different from ours, serious dialogue often reveals that they are rooted in a spiritual substratum that is even deeper than a particular worldview. It is in the dialogue of religious experience that Christians have been profoundly enriched by the encounter and dialogue with Buddhism from approximately the mid-twentieth century. Robert King describes his time studying theology in the 1960s as a time when there was greater emphasis on action and social engagement than on contemplative prayer and meditation:

Theological students of my generation wanted to be out in the world, engaged in the great movements of social change. We read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, took part in civil rights marches, and joined in the opposition to the nuclear arms race and eventually the Vietnam War. We took up the cause of feminism and were early proponents of environmentalism. The contemplative life would have seemed to us “socially irresponsible.”[18]

But during this time of social engagement, there was a parallel trend toward deeper exploration of the contemplative path:

Yet even at the height of the social activism of the 1960s, a sea change was taking place. A number of young people, mainly on the West coast, had discovered the meditative traditions of Asia. Some were even traveling to India, Burma, and Japan in order to train with Hindu and Buddhist teachers. They were challenging the prevailing view that the active life is the only life worth pursuing by looking outside of Western culture for an alternative.[19]

There was a trend toward Asian religions and meditation that continues today. One of the results of “looking East” for meditative practices and theories has been the Christian endeavor to reestablish and rediscover its own strong contemplative tradition.

Thomas Merton is a notable example of a Christian monk whose deep interest in and dialogue with Eastern religions deepened his practice of contemplation within his own Christian tradition. While living in New York City and attending Columbia University several years before his conversion to Catholicism and entrance into monastic life, Merton became friends with Dr. Bramachari, a Hindu scholar had come to the United States from India in 1932 to attend the World Fellowship of Faiths in Chicago. Despite Merton’s youthful curiosity about Asian religions at the time, Bramachari directed him to explore in depth the Christian tradition of the Western world:

He did not generally put his words in the form of advice: but the one counsel he did give me is something that I will not easily forget: “There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s Confessions and The Imitation of Christ.” . . . He repeated what he had said, not without a certain earnestness: “Yes, you must read these books.” It was not often that he spoke with this kind of emphasis. . . .

After all, it is rather ironical that I had turned, spontaneously to the east, in reading about mysticism, as if there were little or nothing in the Christian tradition.[20]

Merton later mentions that he added The Imitation of Christ to his reading list,[21] but had already been reading Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism for his master’s thesis and Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.[22] After his conversion to Catholicism and entrance into monastic life, he devoted himself to the treasury of spirituality within Christianity and monasticism expressed in his writings on the themes of silence, solitude, prayer, and mysticism in books such as Bread in the Wilderness (1953), Sign of Jonas (1953), Seeds of Contemplation (1949), No Man Is an Island (1955), The Silent Life (1957), Thoughts in Solitude (1958), and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966). Merton did not return to writing on Asian religions until mid-1960s in The Way of Chuang Tzu (1965), Mystics and Zen Masters (1967), Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968).

A few years later, in the mid-1970s, three Trappist Cistercians of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington, developed the technique of Centering Prayer.[23] This opened a way of prayer that emphasized an apophatic minimalist use of words and images in contrast to the multiple kataphatic word-and-image-based prayer methods such as the rosary, novenas, or eucharistic adoration that were prevalent in the Church. Centering prayer, as a technique developed in the last few decades of the twentieth century, is custom-designed for busy, overachieving, overactive, precision-scheduled people of the modern Western world. Still, centering prayer is considerably less rigorous than many traditional meditation techniques that Buddhists continue to practice today. In Burma, for instance, “It is not uncommon for someone to take their yearly vacation at a meditation center. At these centers, people spend anywhere from ten days to several months or longer doing extremely intensive practice.”[24] And this describes a Burmese meditation center open to lay people in contrast to secluded monasteries that offer even more intensive programs for those making long-term commitments as monastics. Yet, centering prayer was akin to many Buddhist meditation forms in its emphasis on calming the overactive and easily-distracted mind. For Christians, this would not be the final goal of prayer, but only a step toward inviting the personal God into one’s inner being, now emptied of diversions.

Thomas Merton and the Tension between Contemplation and Action
This recovery of contemplation in Christianity leads to the next theme: the tension and the balance between contemplation and action. Thomas Merton faced the sharp tension between contemplation and action in his efforts to express his call for nuclear disarmament at a time when writing on such social issues was considered beyond the scope of topics appropriate for a Trappist monk to address. He completed a manuscript for Peace in the Post-Christian Era in 1962, but the Abbot General of the Trappists, Dom Gabriel Sortais, “banned” the book and “forbade him to do any further writing on the subject of war and peace.”[25] As a monk, Merton was in a position to focus his energies on writing on Christian ethical issues, but at the same time, as a monk, he faced the restrictions of his superiors. In a letter to Merton, Dom Gabriel asserted, “I believe you have the power to influence the world by your prayers and by your life withdrawn into God more than by your writings.”[26] In the book itself, Merton emphasizes his desire to speak from his vantage point as unattached monk:

Therefore the purpose of the present book is to stand back from the imminent risks of the Cold War crisis, seeking to judge the problem of nuclear war not in relation to what seem to be our own interests or even our own survival, but simply in the light of moral truth.[27]

Monasticism opened the possibility of setting aside amoral, Machiavellian, “practical” or “rational” opinions based on Realpolitik that had become the modus operandi, and of looking at the issue from a more purely Christian, religious and moral perspective. In typical Mertonian hyperbole and with a hint of sarcasm, he describes the attachments binding people who live and work in today’s militarized world:

It is certainly neither practical nor even sane to expect that thousands of military bureaucrats who people the Pentagon will suddenly have a change of heart and listen to the message of nonviolence one fine day, close down all their offices, cancel all the orders for new missiles, tear up all the defense contracts, and retire to ashrams.[28]

Despite the sarcasm, Merton is at least understanding of the dilemma of balancing moral questions and living in today’s world. But he also insists that those who consider themselves Christians are not allowed easy excuses. A Christian must not slip into indifference. Peace in a Post-Christian Era was eventually published in 2004, forty-two years after he had written it.[29]

Thus far, I have elaborated on a few key points. First, Christians have had to learn to be in dialogue in the first place and that has not been an easy process. In spite of the large amount of theological discussion that has already taken place with regard to the shift toward dialogue, we are still only beginning to grapple with the issues that dialogue raises. Secondly, Christians came to realize that dialogue meant having the humility to learn from practitioners of another religion. Unexpectedly, this meant not only learning more about Buddhism, but learning more about our own Christian tradition. Through dialogue, Thomas Merton and others came to a fuller appreciation of dimensions of the Christian tradition that had been neglected, undeveloped, or avoided for various reasons. Third, while Christians have deepened their contemplative practices, the tension between contemplation and action remains.

I now would like to present another example of that tension, that of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Buddhist monastics of Burma. This will provide an opportunity to revisit these themes with a few interesting variations.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Sangha, and the Struggle for Democracy in Burma
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk; Aung San Suu Kyi is a laywoman. If we were to identify her occupation in society, she would most closely be identified as a politician. In a sense, she was destined to this role from her birth. A few years after the end of World War II, in late 1947, Burma gained independence from British colonial power. The man who is considered and “almost deified”[30] as the heroic leader of the Burmese independence movement was Aung San. However, on July 19, 1947, about six months before independence was won, he was assassinated by a rival politician. At the time of his assassination, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was two years old.

About fifteen years later, in March 1962, General Ne Win overthrew Burma’s democratically elected government and seized power. No blood was shed during the coup itself, which took place on March 2. The following day, the government suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament. Ne Win established a twenty-four member Revolutionary Council and began to rule by decree. But four months later, on July 7, thousands of students gathered to listen to speakers condemn the coup and call for democracy. Soldiers arrived and fired into the crowd.

Officially, fifteen were killed and twenty-seven wounded. But both neutral observers and students who were present during the shooting say that the university looked like a slaughterhouse where not fifteen but hundreds of potential leaders of society in many fields lay sprawled in death.[31]

Such crackdowns on protests and the subsequent discrepancies in death counts have become a recurring motif in Burmese history, in 1974, 1990, and 2007.

By the time of Ne Win’s coup, Aung San’s daughter, (Suu Kyi or even shortened to “Suu” to her close friends) had been raised in Burma, but had moved with her mother when she was fifteen to India where she attended school in New Delhi and developed admiration for the nonviolent principles of Mahatma Gandhi. She went on to study at Oxford and in 1969, went to work at the United Nations headquarters in New York during the time that the Burmese U Thant was Secretary General. On New Year’s Day, 1972, she married Michael Aris, an Englishman whom she knew from her time at Oxford. In the early 1980s, Suu Kyi learned Japanese and went as a visiting scholar to Kyoto University in Japan to examine Burmese material from World War II.

While in Japan, in April 1988, she received news that her mother had suffered a stroke. Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon to tend to her leaving behind her studies in Japan and undertaking a journey that would change the course of her life. A few months after her return, in late July of 1988, the political situation erupted. On August 8, 1988 (8.8.88), dissatisfied dockworkers of Rangoon went on strike. On August 14, Suu Kyi sent a letter asking for dialogue with the government. On August 25, the then-unknown Aung San Suu Kyi’s gave her first major public political address in front of the Schwe Dagon Pagoda in the then capital Rangoon and won the hearts of the crowds who had arrived initially out of curiosity. Overnight, she became the leading figure in the democracy movement in Burma. On September 22, in an odd move that seems to have been genuine and based on an overconfident or tone-deaf presumption that the current regime was indeed the popular favorite, the new junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) announced it would hold “free and fair elections.”[32]

Almost immediately afterward, on September 24, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was formed and Suu Kyi was elected as general secretary. Suu Kyi was easily and quickly gaining momentum as she embarked on a speaking tour around the country. The next summer, just before the forty-second anniversary of Aung San’s assassination on July 19, 1989, Suu Kyi had “declared that she would march—in a peaceful and disciplined manner—with thousands of her followers to pay respects to her fallen father, and not take part in the SLORC-organized ceremony.”[33] The day before the anniversary, on July 18, the government issued a warning against supporting or marching with Suu Kyi. “Early in the morning of the nineteenth, an estimated ten thousand soldiers, including artillery and armored car units, moved into Rangoon to reinforce the troops already stationed there. . . . In order to avoid another bloodbath, Suu Kyi called off her planned march.”[34] On the next day, July 20, soldiers entered Suu Kyi’s compound on 54 University Avenue and placed her under house arrest “‘for up to one year’—hardly by coincidence well beyond the promised general election, which now had been scheduled for May 1990.”[35]

About ten months later, on May 27, 1990, the Burmese people went to vote for the first time in thirty years; the last time was in 1960, two years before Ne Win’s takeover. Suu Kyi’s NLD captured 392 of the 485 seats contested in the 492-member National Assembly. The rest of the votes went to NLD allies while the military-backed National Unity Party won only ten seats. Suu Kyi heard the results of the election on the radio at her house still under house arrest Despite the NLD’s landslide victory, the SLORC made it clear that it would not relinquish power.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhism
It was not in a monastery that Suu Kyi developed her contemplative side, but while under house arrest. Interestingly, the anti-nuclear activist, Jim Douglas, who has spent time in prison for acts of civil disobedience, speaks of prison “as the new monastery” of today.[36] Before her time in confinement, she was familiar with Buddhism as the religion she was raised in and as the predominant religion in Burma, but it was during her time in detention that she deepened her commitment, understanding, and practice of her native religion. She benefited from a collection of books on Buddhism left by her mother at the house. She wrote about her experience including her struggles in meditative practices:

Like many of my Buddhist colleagues, I decided to put my time under detention to good use by practicing meditation. It was not an easy process. I did not have a teacher and my early attempts were more than a little frustrating. There were days when I found my failure to discipline my mind in accordance with prescribed meditation practices so infuriating I felt I was doing myself more harm than good. I think I would have given up but for the advice of a famous Buddhist teacher, that whether or not one wanted to practise meditation, one should do so for one’s own good. So I gritted my teeth and kept at it, often rather glumly.[37]

Eventually, “Vipassana meditation became a core element in the strict regimen that Suu Kyi adopted. It was how she began each day.”[38]

As a monk, Thomas Merton was devoted to the life of prayer, but still believed that he should publish his opinion on social issues such as war. Suu Kyi is a politician devoted to democracy in Burma, and when she faced the question of the extent to which she as a political leader should blend religious language into her political thought, she made it quite clear that she believed religion is compatible with politics.[39] She often refers to Buddhist scriptures and concepts such as the Ten Duties of Kings, Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, and the Eight Virtues of Kings to illustrate her idea of good government.[40]

The compatibility of religious/ contemplative and political/ active approaches are vividly demonstrated in the activism of Burma’s sangha (monastic communities). On August 8, 1990, after the Burmese government’s refusal to recognize the results of the 1990 election, thousands of Buddhist monks marched through the streets of Mandalay in protest. It was not officially a demonstration—the monks were out on their morning alms round—but the date was symbolic as it was the second anniversary of the 1988 uprising. Tens of thousands of people showed up to offer food to the monks. “At one point along the route, some students hoisted a peacock flag, the symbol of the Burmese nationalists during the British colonial era and now also of the pro-democracy movement.”[41] Some soldiers “apparently overreacted” and opened fire with automatic G-3 rifles and a seventeen-year-old novice, Shi Ah Sein Na, of Mogaung monastery in Mandalay was wounded with a punctured lung and shattered shoulder. Soldiers charged and nine other monks and at least two other onlookers were hit. Fourteen monks were beaten and at least five were arrested.     

On August 27, more than seven thousand monks gathered and symbolically refused to accept offerings from soldiers and their families or to perform religious rites for them, effectively excommunicating them. This boycott then spread to other cities throughout Burma. On October 20, SLORC chairman Saw Maung ordered the dissolution of all Buddhist organizations engaging in activities against the government, saying that those who refused would not be allowed to remain monks. Local military commanders were given authority of martial law permitting them to disrobe monks and have them imprisoned or executed if they did not comply with the SLORC decree. Two days later, army helicopters dropped leaflets over several monasteries in Mandalay ordering them to give up the boycott. One hundred and thirty-three monasteries were raided by troops arresting monks, including U Thummingala, head of a renowned teaching monastery in Rangoon and some of Burma’s most respected senior abbots.

My presentation to the American Benedictine Academy only described events in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi and in Burmese history from 1988, the start of Suu Kyi’s political career in Burma, to 1990, the elections and further consolidation of power by the military regime in the wake of Suu Kyi’s house arrest in 1989. I had to purposely omit many significant events in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, including her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which drew increased international attention to Burma. I also did not refer to the 2007 Burmese Buddhist monks’ protests to the present complex situation. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and she traveled internationally for the first time since her house arrest, including finally delivering her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on June 16, 2012, and then meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, and receiving the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal on September 19, 2012.

The attention she and others have drawn to the Burmese government has provided pressure for change, yet there is still much that remains the same. The international community has challenged the validity of recently-held elections, tensions among ethnic groups continue to simmer and erupt, and the UN and other organizations continue to confront Burma on human rights issues.

In my presentation, I noted several differences between what Thomas Merton and Aung San Suu Kyi offer regarding the theme of the 2012 ABA conference, to “Seek Peace and Pursue It.” One difference that is particularly pertinent is the difference in time periods and contexts. Merton addressed issues during World War II and the Vietnam War, international conflicts that fit into a traditional definition of war. Suu Kyi has taken her actions in a time and place that is not engaged in outright warfare. Yet the government of Burma rules by means of military power, not by the will of the people. They have enacted a pattern of violent suppression and human rights violations to popular resistance. Such a situation cannot be called one of peace, and thus there remains the need to “seek peace and pursue it.” My hope is that in presenting on Aung San Suu Kyi, I participate in drawing attention the role she and the Burmese Buddhist monastic community are playing in the overall, troublesome situation in Burma. The sangha in Burma, our Buddhist brothers and sisters, are in a profound tension between contemplation and action that many of us outside of Burma can hardly imagine.    


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_____. Letters from Burma. London, New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

_____. Towards a True Refuge. Eighth Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture. Delivered by Michael Aris, May 19, 1993. Introduction by Sir Claus Moser; response by Peter Carey. Oxford: Refugee Studies Programme, Queen Elizabeth House: with the Perpetua Press, 1993.

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_____. Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. August 6, 2000. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html. (Retrieved: January 1, 2013).

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King, Robert Harlen and Elizabeth M. Autumn Years: Taking Contemplative Path. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Knitter, Paul. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.

Kornfield, Jack. Living Buddhist Masters. Santa Cruz, CA: Unity Press, 1977.

Lintner, Bertil. Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2011.

_____. The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Activism in Burma. Human Rights Watch Report. 22 September 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/node/85648 (Retrieved: January 1, 2013).

Merdjanova, Ina and Patrice Brodeur. Religion as a Conversation Starter: Interreligious Dialogue for Peacebuilding in the Balkans. London, New York: Continuum, 2009.

Merton, Thomas. Peace in the Post-Christian Era. Edited with an Introduction by Patricia A. Burton. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.

______. Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1948.

Mitchell, Donald and James A. Wiseman. Introduction to The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics. Edited by Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman. New York: Continuum, 1997.

Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_19051991_dialogue-and-proclamatio_en.html (Retrieved: January 1, 2013).

Seager, Richard Hughes. The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/ West Encounter, Chicago, 1893. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Swidler, Leonard. “The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious, Interideologieal Dialogue.” In Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 20:1, Winter 1983 (September, 1984, revision). Sacred Heart University, Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, http://www.sacredheart.edu/pages/13027__the_dialogue_decalogue_by_leonard_swidler.cfm (Retrieved: January 1, 2013)

Wintle, Justin. Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience. New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2007.

[1]. Leonard Swidler, “THE DIALOGUE DECALOGUE: Ground Rules for Interreligious, Interideologieal Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 20:1, Winter 1983 (September, 1984, revision) Sacred Heart University, Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding: http://www.sacredheart.edu/pages/13027__the_dialogue_decalogue_by_leonard_swidler.cfm (Retrieved: January 1, 2013).

[2]. Richard Hughes Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/ West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2009).

[3]. Pierre-François de Béthune, Preface to The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, Donald W. Mitchell and James A. Wiseman, eds. (New York: Continuum, 1997), xi; and in greater detail in Fabrice Blée, trans. William Skudlarek and Mary Grady, The Third Desert: The Story of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), 58-60.

[4]. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, October 15, 1989, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html. (Retrieved: January 1, 2013), footnote 1.

[5]. John Paul II, Address to the Representatives of the Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities and of the World Religions. October 27, 1986, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1986/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19861027_prayer-peace-assisi-final_en.html. (Retrieved: January 1, 2013).

[6]. Donald Mitchell and James A. Wiseman, Introduction to 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, 1997), xvii.

[7]. Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, “Brussels to Host the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2014,” The Parliament Blog: http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/news/index.php/2011/03/brussels-to-host-the-parliament-of-the-worlds-religions-in-2014/ (Retrieved: January 1, 2013).

[8]. This is not to assert that Christian theology is directly responsible for Nazi genocidal policies, only that after World War II, Christians reassessed anti-Jewish positions inherent in Christian theology. See Edward Kessler, An Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 137-146.

[9]. Ina Merdjanova and Patrice Brodeur, Religion as a Conversation Starter: Interreligious Dialogue for Peacebuilding in the Balkans (London, New York: Continuum, 2009), 14.

[10]. Published by the Secretariat for Non-Christians, 1984.

[11]. A papal encyclical of Pope John Paul II, 1990.

[12]. Published by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (formerly Secretariat for Non-Christians), 1991.

[13]. Dalai Lama XIV, The Good Heart: a Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus, Introduction by Laurence Freeman; translation from the Tibetan and annotated by GesheThupten Jinpa; edited and with a preface by Robert Kiely (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996), 45.

[14]. Dalai Lama, Good Heart, 45.

[15]. Dalai Lama, Good Heart, 46.

[16]. Dalai Lama, Good Heart, 46.

[17]. Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_19051991_dialogue-and-proclamatio_en.html (Retrieved: January 1, 2013), #42.

[18]. Robert Harlen and Elizabeth M. King, Autumn Years: Taking Contemplative Path (New York: Continuum, 2004), 51-52.

[19]. Harlen and King, Autumn Years, 51-52.

[20]. Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1948), 198.

[21]. Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, 201.

[22]. Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, 199 and 204.

[23]. Thomas Keating, Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life: Open Mind, Open Heart; Invitation to Love; The Mystery of Christ (New York: Continuum, 2002), 121.

[24]. Jack Kornfield, Living Buddhist Masters (Santa Cruz CA: Unity Press, 1977), 22.

[25]. Jim Forest, foreword to Thomas Merton, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, Edited with an Introduction by Patricia A. Burton (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2004), ix.

[26]. As cited in Forest, foreword, xiii.

[27]. Thomas Merton, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, 4.

[28]. Merton, Peace, 136.

[29]. Forest, foreword, xviii.

[30]. Bertil Lintner, Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2011), 2.

[31]. Lintner, Burma’s Struggle, 38.

[32]. Lintner, Burma’s Struggle, 4.

[33]. Lintner, Burma’s Struggle, 72.

[34]. Lintner, Burma’s Struggle, 72.

[35]. Lintner, Burma’s Struggle, 72.

[36]. James Douglass, The Nonviolent Coming of God (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1991).

[37]. Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma, (London, New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 160.

[38]. Justin Wintle, Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Prisoner of Conscience, (New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2007), 347.

[39]. Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements, The Voice of Hope (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), 26.

[40]. Aung San Suu Kyi, “In Quest of Democracy,” in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings. Foreword by Václev Havel; edited with an introduction by Michael Aris. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 170.

[41]. Suu Kyi, “Quest,” 170.

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