The Seventh International Buddhist-Christian Conference:
"Hear the Cries of the World"
Summary by Darnise C. Martin
Assistant Director, Center for Religion and Spirituality
Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles, California June 3-8, 2005
The SBCS Seventh International Conference honoring the ongoing Buddhist-Christian dialogue was hosted by Loyola Marymount University, June 3-8, 2005. The campus provided a picturesque and temperate backdrop to conversations, workshops, worship experiences, musical performances and academic sessions inspired by the theme, "Hear the Cries of the World". This focus shaped our time together as we discussed issues, both old and new, that continue to polarize our world and ways in which we might heal and grow into more holistic ways of being.
Loyola Marymount University was pleased to welcome more than 120 participants from close to home and around the world. In addition to representation from many parts of the United States, we also had guests from Japan, Belgium, Germany, Korea, and Sweden. With such a diverse group having a range of needs and concerns, I was heartened to receive positive feedback from all of our attendees who expressed their satisfaction with the programming and events as well as the general logistics, organization and staff accessibility throughout the conference.
The conference got underway with bittersweet opening ceremonies. We began with words of welcome to our international group, as well as expressions of sadness at the loss of David Chappell, founding member of the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies. David's memory was lifted up in the presence of his family, dear friends and colleagues. The Society will carry on his work of dialogue, healing and reconciliation.
The conference had many highlights. One of the most notable features of the conference was the visually and musically stunning dance performance by Viji Prakash, acclaimed international choreographer and dancer. Her dance troupe, Shakti Dance Company, performed "From Prince to Buddha: A Journey to Enlightenment," an energetic production based on the life of the Buddha. The audience was thoroughly enchanted and entertained by this performance. The academic sessions offered many and varied expressions of the theme, "Hear the Cries of the World." Scholars, activists, and clergy came together to present papers and personal experiences around issues of ecological healing, prison ministry, youth outreach, women¹s responses to poverty and injustice, as well as the traditional figures of compassion, the Virgin Mary, Kuan Yin, and the way of the Bodhisattva.
In particular, our group was intensely moved through an evening presentation on prison ministry presented by two people working intimately in the area of bringing compassion to this field. One presenter was Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Dharma Network and the National Prison Hospice Association, who has been in the prison system as an inmate himself. He shared the experiences that led to his incarceration as well as the dehumanizing ways in which people are treated as inmates. He spoke of meditation as a tool by which prisoners may develop awareness and regain their humanity, even if for only brief moments. These moments can maintain hope for people who otherwise would have none. Maull, who was ordained a Buddhist priest while in prison, began a ministry to provide hospice care to terminally ill inmates, a ministry that has continued after his release through a growing network of participating prisons.
The second presenter, Beth Ross of First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church in Los Angeles also discussed her work as part of their prison ministry outreach. Ross spoke about ministering not only to the person in prison, but also to the family of the inmate. Each has particular needs. The church has responded to prisoners' need not to feel abandoned and isolated by instituting a letter writing campaign. She said this helps people stay connected to a community and begin to heal. The church also provides re-entry support as prisoners are released and need to find housing and employment. Ross advocates for these former inmates needing a second chance. Without help, she notes, they are destined to commit further crimes against society and return to prison. FAME hopes to be a beacon of hope to these former prisoners.
This was a powerful session for everyone. Speaking for myself, I had often thought about how society permanently demonizes former inmates. What chance do these individuals have to make a new start when their society makes no space for them? These two presenters really gave us food for thought.
In addition to insightful and thought-provoking academic sessions, the conference also provided space for early morning worship services, midday experiential workshops, and off site field trips to local points of interest. Participants were invited to participate in an assortment of meditations and music making: Christian and Theravadan walking meditations, zen meditation, Buddhist chanting, sacred music and Ignatian contemplation, to name a few varieties.
Our field trips took us to Wat Thai Buddhist Temple where we were graciously hosted by the Venerable Sumana and the resident monks for lunch and a tour of their lovely temple. Our next excursion took us to the Japanese American National Museum for a panel discussion on internment camp experiences from several Japanese-American Buddhist and Christian community leaders. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in downtown Los Angeles provided a beautiful space for our interfaith prayer service. Fr. Alexei Smith, Archdiocesan Officer for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, facilitated this service of Buddhist and Christian prayer, music and community. Finally, the community at Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple welcomed us for food and fellowship in the forms of chanting services, temple tours and an inspiring presentation honoring the ways in which women around the world have responded in protest to issues of poverty and abuse. These presentations left us with hope for healing and reconciliation.
After several days spent conversing, sharing, worshipping, and traveling together, our participants gathered themselves to leave. As our event came to a close we bid farewell to colleagues and new friends with the hope that peaceful and respectful dialogue on issues that really matter may continue.