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Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Bologna and in Pistoia

Thomas Cattoi

Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley


In 2016, the Italian city of Bologna – which hosts one of the oldest universities in the world -hosted the inaugural meeting of the newly established European Academy of Religion. Modelled loosely on the American Academy of Religion, the conference brings together scholars from all over Europe, but also from North America and other parts of the world. Scholars from English-speaking countries are often startled when they discover that Italian universities -unlike Pontifical institutions such as the Gregorian University or the Angelicum in Rome- do not have departments of theology or religious studies (they were all closed in 1873 by the Italian government, which feared they would all turn into centers of opposition to the newly established Italian state). As such, while it is not possible to obtain a degree in these disciplines, different aspects of theology can be studied in different departments: Thomas Aquinas or Rahner are studied in departments of philosophy, Buddhism and Hinduism are often studied in departments of Asian studies or Asian languages and so on.   

Piazza Maggiore in Bologna with the fountain of Neptune

Piazza Maggiore in Bologna with the fountain of Neptune

Given this peculiar situation, the Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII (John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, also known as SCIRE, an acronym echoing the Latin verb ‘to know’) at the University of Bologna has tried to redress this situation and encourage not only the study of religion as an academic discipline in a context where this is limited to ecclesiastical establishments, but has also tried to encourage the development of interreligious initiative and comparative religious studies, bringing scholars to Bologna from all over the world. One of the chief engines behind the European Academy of Religion, SCIRE hosted a variety of sessions on different aspects of interreligious dialogue, including many that in a way or another touched on Buddhist-Christian dialogue. 

The entrance of SCIRE in Via San Vitale in Bologna

The entrance of SCIRE in Via San Vitale in Bologna

As someone who grew up in Italy though never went to university there, I found myself in Bologna in the peculiar situation of being both an insider and an outsider, having a better understanding of the local culture than most visitors, but also very much coming there as someone who by now has spent almost twenty years in American departments of theology and has very much adapted to its particular approach to interreligious dialogue. It was a great pleasure then to interact with scholars from other European countries that brought their own specific background and approach to the issue of dialogue. In 2018, together with Brandon Gallaher from Exeter University, we started a group on Eastern Christianity and interreligious dialogue, which hosted a number of papers devoted to dialogue between Eastern Christian theology and spirituality and their counterpart in other traditions. Last year, I read a paper on Gregory Palamas and the notion of the Buddha bodies in the Tibetan tradition; this year, in a similar panel, I offered a reflection on the Russian imiaslavie controversy – a dispute that divided the Holy Mountain of Athos at the beginning of the twentieth century, when some monks identified the name of God with God’s actual essence- and Tibetan visualization practices. A number of scholars from the Volos seminary in Greece were in attendance and this led to a very interesting conversation. We are currently preparing a proposal for Brill for a two-volume project on dialogue between Eastern Christianity and Eastern religions, which should have a significant Buddhist-Christian component.        

The conference in Bologna also saw the participation of many members of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian studies, led by the indefatigable Elisabeth Harris who hosted a number of sessions. Perry Schmidt-Leukel gave everyone a preview of his eagerly awaited commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Elisabeth talked about Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its curious appropriation of Hindu and Mahayana themes, and other scholars offered reflections on the nature of dialogue in an increasingly plural Europe. Many presenters will reconvene in Sankt Ottilien this summer for the bi-annual conference of the Network- an event that promises to be as exciting as its 2017 predecessor in Montserrat.

After the conference was over, I travelled across the Apennines to the Tuscan city of Pistoia- just a short two hours away by train. Pistoia is the birthplace of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), who is well known to all scholars of Buddhist-Christian dialogue as the first Jesuit and indeed the first Westerner to really learn Tibetan and engage in interreligious dialogue. In 2017, an international conference was held there that celebrated the 300th anniversary of Desideri’s arrival in Lhasa- having had the great opportunity to participate and present at that conference, I also oversaw the publication of its proceedings in the 2018 issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies

This recent visit, however, took me to one of Pistoia’s most famous -though alas, woefully underfunded!- cultural institutions: the Fabronian Library, named after Cardinal Agostino Fabroni (1651-1727).

The main reading room in the Fabronian library

The main reading room in the Fabronian library

The main entrance

The main entrance

Fabroni, born in Pistoia a generation before Desideri, also joined the Society of Jesus and soon moved to Rome, where he became one of the most trusted advisors of Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700), who named him secretary of Propaganda Fide. As the ultimate authority for all Catholic missions in the world, Fabroni entertained an intense correspondence with missionaries in India, China, and Vietnam, though he was also heavily involved in the theological disputes of the time, as attested by his numerous writings on the question of Jansenism. Upon his retirement from Propaganda and his elevation to the cardinalate, Fabroni chose -rather unusually- to return to his hometown, brining along an enormous quantity of documents about the Asian missions. These documents, along with his collection of rare books, constitute the core of the Fabronian library, still owned by the Diocese of the city of Pistoia. Alas, almost three hundred years after the death of Fabroni, the material still lies there, mainly untouched. No catalogue exists- in the 1920’s as the original containers crumbled because of humidity, the papers were transferred into new folders and there left untouched. The rooms have no heating or air conditioning, with the result that a lot of the material constantly deteriorates. 

Dr. Anna Agostini, the librarian, kindly agreed to spend two days with me going through some of the material- some of the folders had most likely not been opened since 1925. We found an incredible amount of letters from missionaries in China discussing the Chinese rites controversy, others writing from Vietnam talking about the curious practices of Buddhist monks, letters by bishops in Macao complaining about unruly religious orders, and so on. Most of the material is in Italian or Latin or other Western European languages, though some is in Chinese, which I do not read (some Chinese-speaking scholar should visit soon!). The amount of material is almost mindboggling. Dr. Agostini will help me reproduce some of this material and hopefully this will find its way into a published volume on the history of the Asian missions. 

One of the many manuscripts on the Chinese rites…

One of the many manuscripts on the Chinese rites…

Of course, as always, there are questions that remain unanswered. Desideri must have corresponded with Fabroni during his lengthy controversy over the mission in Tibet- in addition, they were from the same city, and Fabroni was there when Desideri returned from Lhasa in 1722. Yet, there appears to be no trace of this correspondence. Is it lying in one of the unopened boxes at the Fabronian library? Perhaps a future visit will resolve this mystery.    

Queering Identities: Resource and Resilience

By Hsiao-Lan Hu

University of Detroit Mercy

In recent years I have been made to become increasingly aware of the convergence of my “in-between” identities in multiple regards, as well as the resilience that the ambiguity and undefinability of my identities have afforded me. “Queering” identities can bring about much strength—if the word “queer” is understood as a verb and used to mean “to make strange” and to sever “the notion of identity from any stable reference points.” (1)

Several years ago at the American Academy of Religion meetings I heard a wonderful paper on intersectionality and identity. The presenter did a skillful self-reflective analysis on being a racial and sexual minority with an ambiguous nationality marker. He mentioned that, as a result of his multiply minoritized identity, he changes the ways in which he identifies himself depending on the identities of his interlocutors. What caught my attention was not that he changes the way he identifies himself because, frankly, I do that all the time, as all minorities probably do to a certain extent. What piqued my interest was that he stated that he wanted to figure out the “shame” in omitting some part of his identity, such as his place of origin. I was really struck with his use of the word “shame” because, if anything, my identity is even more complex and minoritized than his—I do not mean this in a “who got it worse” kind of way, but just to list a few components of my minority status in the U.S.:

1. I am one of the very few token representations of “the East” in my institution; the job ad I answered to in fact stated that they were looking for someone capable of teaching world religions, “with specialization in Asian Religions”—as if “Asian Religions” could be an area of specialization, and in the past decade I have encountered quite a number of colleagues who would complain to me about the Asian students in their classes as if I would personally know all of them; 

2. I am an immigrant (an “alien” according to my legal documents) in a country that is increasingly anti-immigrant, and I went through a horrendously long process to obtain permanent residence due to the grotesque incompetence of the lawyer hired by my institution. The process dragged on for so long that I had to file extension for my visa three times, and the incompetent lawyer let my extension expire twice. That is, for about seven years I did not know if I would be allowed to stay at my job in this country, and twice I even thought I was about to become “illegal,” and yet the people in positions of power all seemed more concerned with keeping the old white male lawyer’s job than keeping the only person responsible for teaching students about the whole eastern hemisphere; 

 3. English is my third language (arguably fourth, depending on how one evaluates the difference between classical Chinese and modern Mandarin Chinese), but it is also my primary scholarly language (that is, I seldom write my scholarly work in Chinese), and I very often encounter people (particularly people who are monolingual) who would look at my Asian face and immediately assume I cannot use the language well and either speak slowly and loudly to me, or take upon themselves to teach me the meaning of certain words, or act surprised if I can phrase something in English better than they do; 

4. I am a Buddhist scholar of Asian descent surrounded by orientalist Buddhist discourses that devalue what traditional Asian Buddhists actually do in favor of precept-less meditation and philosophical abstraction, and yet my own scholarship happens to lean heavily toward theory and abstraction as well; 

5. I grew up in a culture in which religious traditions are for the most part interfused with each other and do not require exclusive identity, and now I am in a sea of people who not only assume a monotheistic framework but assume everyone has one and only one religion; 

6. I am from Taiwan, and many people in the U.S. do not even know where that is; I even have a couple of colleagues who still think I am from China after having known me for 11 years; 

7. My friends who are Taiwanese or Chinese immigrants to the U.S. perceive me as more American than Taiwanese; quite a number of them actually assumed I was born in the U.S. when they met me;

8. Even in Taiwan I am “in between”—with my father migrating from China to Taiwan after World War II and my mother’s family having been in Taiwan for nearly 300 years, I grew up being referred to as “half taro, half yam” since “mainlanders” are often pejoratively nicknamed “old taro” by “Taiwanese” who identify the shape of Taiwan to be “yam.” I speak Mandarin Chinese to my father and his side of the family and his friends, and switch to southern Fukkien (a.k.a. “Taiwanese”) when encountering my mother’s family and friends; and 

9. I have never identified with the feminine gender that was assigned to me at birth, and yet I am not too keen to identify with the masculine gender, either (even though I strongly identified as a boy when I was growing up). For more than two decades now I feel I am of a gender that is between, or beyond, the binary, and for this reason I never feel the label “lesbian” really applies to me because, in my mind, when I were in a relationship, I would still be involved with someone of a different sex/gender. 

The point is, my identity is even more complex and minoritized than that presenter’s, and I shift the way I identify myself depending on the identities of my interlocutors, too (at a very high frequency, actually), but it had never occurred to me to associate my identity-shifting with “shame.” And I certainly hate to think that I might be shameless. Intellectually, I do understand that, as stated in a textbook on multiple identities in counseling, “dominant cultural beliefs and values furnish and perpetuate feelings of inadequacy, shame, confusion, and distrust.” (2)  Still, emotionally I did not really relate to the emotional distress that propelled the usage of the word “shame” (and my close friends would know that it is very rare for me to be unable to relate to other people’s emotional distress; usually I pick up other people’s emotions before they even say anything). What is going on?

When I was sitting there pondering what was wrong with me, a few things popped into my head. The first thing was my multiple religious identities—as mentioned above and in my SBCS blogpost in 2018 (3), most people in East Asian societies do not think of religious traditions in exclusive terms and can comfortably identify with Confucian morality, Daoist cosmology, Buddhist philosophy, and folk religious practices at the same time. My tendency of not drawing boundaries between religions extends to monotheistic religions as well: a part of my extended family are Christians and I went to their services as a kid without thinking of it as someone else’s religion. However, even at a young age I found that part of my family to be a little “brittle”—it felt like they were trying very hard to protect an identity that was easily breakable, to the extent that they were rather touchy if any other religious tradition came up in a dinner-table conversation (which was particularly noteworthy because the rest of the family went along with their before-meal Christian prayers without any discomfort). Once I thought about my multiple and unfixed religious identities, my other ambiguous identities also came into view. Then it dawned on me: every part of my identity/-ies is either a mixture, or “neither here, nor there,” or undefinable. Every part of my identity is “queer” or “queered.” 

Nothing about my identity is ever fixed or sharply delineated, and somehow that signals to me that nothing needs to be a fixture of my identity; I never have a stable, monolithic, exclusive identity to latch on to, and I do not feel the need to do so. Every part can submerge, not because I feel ashamed of it, but because it is irrelevant in the context. Conversely, every part can emerge prominently depending on the function needed at the moment. For me, shifting identity is as natural as conversing in English with my colleagues and students, and then switching to Mandarin Chinese mixed with Taiwanese when calling my mother and my brother. Conversing in English does not necessarily mean I am ashamed of my background in Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese (although it could be the case when I am in the presence of certain obnoxious people who happen to be Chinese or Taiwanese). It is as natural as thinking in Daoist terms when I practice qigong and yet behaving according to Confucian codes when I meet with my elders. It is as natural as being theory-oriented in my scholarly work on Buddhism and yet doing chanting and prostrations in more traditional Buddhist spaces. 

How does all this relate to teaching, or queerness, or religious affiliation? 

Elsewhere (4) I have written about the affirmation and empowerment that Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara can provide. In Chapter 25 of Kumārajīva’s (Chinese name: Jiu-mo-luo-shi鳩摩羅什 [344-413, or 350-409]) translation of the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra), the Inexhaustible Mind Bodhisattva (Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Akṣayamati) asked the Buddha why Avalokiteśvara travels around in this world, how Avalokiteśvara teaches the Dharma for the sake of the living, and what sort of skillful means Avalokiteśvara has. The Buddha replied that Avalokiteśvara would spontaneously assume 33 different forms, depending on the need of the being, in order to teach the Dharma for them. That is, the great Bodhisattva of Compassion performs the identity needed in order to serve a greater function, i.e. teaching the Dharma for the purpose of alleviating suffering. Identity-shifting is done not to avoid certain identities, but to serve the need at the moment. All teachers know and do this: sometimes in order to draw students into the material, we assume the voice of the author or play the devil’s advocate. I use the collective “we” in class when talking about social issues in the U.S. even though I am not American and for years did not even know if I would be allowed to stay in the U.S. I suit up and put on a tie when teaching about the performativity of gender. I deliberately turn up my nerdiness when teaching Religions and Sci-Fi. In classroom, we perform and shift between certain identities, not because other identities are shameful and need to be hidden, but because certain identities seem much more effective in teaching the material and serving the function needed in the classroom.

The Bodhisattva’s ability to shift between multiple identities comes from having transcended the delusional ego-self, and from not being attached to any particular identity. Non-attachment needs to come first. Or does it? Can having multiple or queered identities foster a degree of non-attachment to any particular identity? For the most part in my teaching career I need to cover multiple religious traditions in the same course, and very frequently students only tune in when it is about their religion and seem to have a mental block when it is about religions unfamiliar to them. In my own experience, as well as the experiences of some friends, usually the students with “in between” identities are more receptive to unfamiliar religions—students who come from interfaith families and have the experience of dual or multiple belonging, students who are not Christian but went to Catholic elementary and secondary schools, students who have lived overseas in a different culture for an extended period of time, students who are first- or second-generation immigrants and speak two or more languages at home, students who have been steeped in an “eastern” practice for the better part of their life (such as having practiced karate or jūdō since childhood), students who are gender and/or sexual minorities and have never felt they fit into either of the boxes in the binary sex/gender system, etc. In fact, these students often seem to feel inspired or even empowered in learning about diverse religious traditions. I was told, for example, that queer students in a course on LGBTQ religious experience love to learn about the theological resources in religions that are not their own. Granted, having multiple identities does not guarantee attenuation of attachment; one can cling to multiple identities as tenaciously as they cling to only one, and in so far as they equate themselves with those identities, omitting any of them feels like hiding something out of shame. However, my experiences with students (and with myself) suggest that people who have been “in between” and who have had to shift identity depending on the need at the moment are more comfortable with being presented with different ways of thinking. Their own ambiguous identities instill a certain degree of flexibility with regards to identities or affiliations, and they find diversity to be a resource, rather than a problem or a hindrance. Students who did not have ambiguous identities but took a course that required immersion (such as a religious studies course that requires a visit to the establishment of a different religion, or a language course that is keyed to the cultural context) also tend to be more receptive. Exposure to possibilities allows more possibilities.

A line in the Heart Sūtra that says, “Without attachment, there is no fear.” Without lodging one’s identity in a “stable reference point,” one does not need to fear that particular “stable reference point” may/will crumble or change shape or shift location. Human beings do not have Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s ability to assume various forms, but we can cultivate the ability to be comfortable with dislodging identity from any stable reference point and to perform multiple identities. Exposure to diversity allows more flexibility and higher tolerance of undefinability, and cultivating more identities equips one with more tools, which will come in handy when any one of the “stable reference points” becomes unstable. “Queered” identities afford one with resource and resilience. 


______________________________________________

 (1) Iain Morland and Annabelle Willox, “Introduction,” in Queer Theory, edited by Iain Morland and Annabelle Willox (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 4.  See also Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi, “Introduction,” in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 1 and 8-9.  

(2) Tracy L. Robinson-Wood, The Convergence of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender: Multiple Identities in Counseling, 3rd Edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2009), iv.

(3) https://www.society-buddhist-christian-studies.org/teaching/2018/9/26/beyond-interreligious-dialogue-and-abstract-pluralism-in-memory-of-john-c-raines

(4) Hsiao-Lan Hu, “Buddhism and Sexual Orientation,” in Oxford Handbook to Contemporary Buddhism, edited by Michael Jerryson (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 662-677.

Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians

By Leo D. Lefebure

Buddhist-Christian relations always occur within a broader context that involves followers of other religious traditions as well.  Over the last two years I have been in a number of settings where the triadic relations among Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were significant.  

One trajectory of conversations involved academic partners in a dialogue entitled, “Shin Buddhism, Christianity, Islam: Conversations in Comparative Theology.”  During 2017 and 2018, this dialogue involved Shin Buddhist scholars from Ryokoku University in Kyoto, Muslim and Christian scholars from the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, Germany, and Christians scholars from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, as well as a number of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian scholars from other venues.  We met at Ryokoku University in February 2017, and then at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in July 201t, and finally at Georgetown University in June 2018.  The initial meeting explored Shin Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim perspectives on ultimate reality and the cosmos.  The second meeting explored evil and self-awareness in each tradition.  The final meeting explored the meaning of saving action in each tradition.  

At Myanmar Institute of Theology with Professor Maung Maung Yin.jpg

In recent decades Christians have engaged in numerous dialogues with Muslims and in many other dialogues with Buddhists.  There have not been as many Muslim-Buddhist conversations and not many triadic Buddhist-Christian-Muslim dialogues.  Imtiyaz Yusuf, Director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding at Mahidol University in Salaya, Thailand, lamented that even though Muslims and Buddhists have lived alongside each other for centuries in many regions of Asia, they have not yet thoroughly gotten to know each other’s traditions.  He is especially concerned about the situation of the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar, and he repeated an urgent call to all traditions to get to know their neighbors more truly and accurately.  

I learned much from each of the discussions, and I was particularly impressed by Dennis Hirota’s lucid presentations of Shinran in relation to his original context, to other religions and to contemporary issues.  This inspired me to invite Dennis to share his perspectives on Shinran regarding saving action in dialogue with Christianity at our recent SBCS conference in Denver.

I spent much of August 2018 in Myanmar and the beginning of September 2018 in Malaysia.  In each country the triadic relations among Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are troubled.  In Myanmar I repeatedly heard that Catholic and Protestant leaders enjoyed friendly relations with their local Buddhist neighbors, but I also learned of the aggressive Buddhist nationalist movement associated with MaBaTha (the Association for Protection of Race and Religion) and 969, which identifies being Burman with being Buddhist and that views other ethnic and religious identities as inferior.  Some Buddhists in Myanmar do not want Christians or Muslims even to use traditional Buddhist terms in any way.  A professor of the Myanmar Institute of Theology gave me a tour of the International Buddhist University in Yangon, where he had studied Buddhism; however, he informed me that the University has recently closed its doors to all non-Buddhist students.

I heard from both Buddhists and Christians in Myanmar profound suspicion and distrust of Muslims.  Some cited the international fears of the violent jihadists, who in Myanmar are suspected of aiding the Muslims in Rakhine State (known in the outside world as Rohingyas).  Many Buddhists and Christians worry that Muslims are planning a demographic assault on the identity of Myanmar and are seeking to unite the Islamic populations of the Middle East, India, and Bangladesh with the Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia.  Few Buddhists or Christians defend the position of the Muslims in Rakhine State.  The situation of the Muslims remaining in Rakhine State as well as the Muslim refugees who moved to Bangladesh remains dire.  To address the situation, Religions for Peace organized an international, interreligious delegation to visit Rakhine and issue a statement with recommendations.  Buddhists from Japan and Myanmar joined with Christian leaders such as Roman Catholic Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, and Muslim leaders such as Al Haj U Aye Lwin, the Chief Convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar, in issuing a letter for peace on May 24, 2018 (https://rfp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Letter-to-the-People-of-Myanmar-Final-Statement-Letter-24-May-2018-2.pdf).  

In addition to the conflict in Rakhine, there are numerous other conflicts between ethnic groups and the Myanmar government.  I was advised that these are primarily ethnic conflicts, but there is frequently an element of religious identity involved, and some Christians support the military efforts of the Kachin Independence Army on biblical grounds, believing that God gave them their land and they must defend it. 

There are some signs of hope.  I met Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim women in the Women’s Interfaith Group in Mandalay.  These leaders have developed friendships that unite them in concern for relieving suffering, and they do not allow the conflicts elsewhere to interfere with their relationships.  I met many courageous people who are working to relieve suffering in Myanmar, but the situation in many areas remains grave, with no long-term solution evident at the moment.

567782b4-0f97-44ad-9668-d261d60ca934.jpg

In Malaysia I met with Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders and learned of the assertive Malay Islamic movement that identifies being Malay with being Muslim and that views all other ethnic, national, and religious groups as inferior.  When I met with the Buddhist leaders of Kuala Lumpur, I learned of their difficulties in this environment.  When they gave me copies of their books, they pointed out the prominent sticker on each cover, “For non-Muslims only,” in order to allay Muslim fears about proselytization.  At one point the conversation became very somber, as the Buddhists shared their difficulties in relation to the Malay Islamic movement.  I asked them what gave them hope for the future of Malaysia, and they immediately perked up and said, “The goodness of the ordinary Malaysian people.”


Christian leaders described good relations with their Muslim neighbors, but they noted the rise of a more assertive Islamic movement that poses a challenge to followers of all other religious traditions.  The recent electoral victory of Muhathir Muhammad gives hope for better relations, but the Christians and Buddhists I met remained wary.

Report from Greece

The following is a guest post from Valerie Hellerman, Executive Director of Hands on Global, a registered US based non profit working both domestically and internationally with the mission to contribute hands on assistance to communities around the globe for sustainable development of medical, environmental, and educational projects. Valerie Hellerman is a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and a Unitarian Universalist. The following was offered as a sermon at the lay-led Big Sky Unitarian Fellowship in Helena, Montana on Sunday, February 18, 2018.

I am so Raw. Heartbroken. Wounded.

I witnessed an unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Along with 4 other members of a Hands On Global medical team  we answered a call to go to Greece We worked at the Moria Refugee camp on the Island of Lesvos. It is here most refugees arrive in rubber boats crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. It is one of 12 refugee camps in Greece. Morai camp originally an old military prison built to house 2500 now is a UNHCR refugee camp with a population over 7000. There is a spillover into an adjacent  olive grove with over 1000 people.

Refugees predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and 17 other countries are inside the 3 layers of razor wire where they are housed in an ISO box (a shipping container with one door and one window. There are up to 22 people in an iso box.

There are summer camping tents with tarps strewn in between the boxes and on concrete walkways and a thousand more in the olive grove. There are 2 shower rooms in the entire camp of 7000 people. Many have not been able to shower for months. The few toilets are grossly overused , dirty, dangerous for women and spewing raw sewage. In the olive grove camp there is only one outdoor cold shower  from a hose set up in the bush and 9 port a potties. Garbage and plastic bottles are not strewn around the camp but piled high spilling over.

Basic Needs are unmet daily. People have to queue up for food a MRE similar to a military ration and food runs out daily. There is tension and arguments.There are 2 other NGOs giving 250 -300 hot meals  5-6 days a week near the camp but there is a hierarchy of vulnerability; pregnant women and children, elders, those with disabilities, chronic disease, families. The most vulnerable get to eat. The single men are the last to be fed.

People have to queue up for clothing too and that can take 5 days to get a coat, shoes, socks, underwear. The refugee warehouse run by a Syrian refugee Omar and staffed with international volunteers can only handle the distribution for 200 people a day - there are over 8000 . A 2 liter Water bottle  rations is  distributed daily to each refugee that is over 8000 plastic bottles a day contributing to the overflowing garbage and environmental disaster in the camp.

 Needs are regularly unmet and people hear “no I can’t help you today, no I can’t help you tomorrow and maybe I can’t help you at all. “ There is an administrative process to registering refugees , they first need to register with the UNHCR and get an identity card then they must have an interview in their language with a certified translator. They get a first stamp which authorizes them for food water .The stamp process can take weeks, years. They must prove who they are, many have lost their documents during their exodus and many of the universities and businesses  have stopped functioning or have been destroyed so proving your education or resume can be impossible. Imagine how difficult to prove your identity without documents. Then there is the process of getting 2 other stamps, different levels of identity, and asylum potentials  People end up waiting for months even years in the camp.

 Medical care inside the camp is  limited to 50 people a day and the queue for a number begins at 4am . People were given basic meds if available and then  prescriptions for chronic conditions, which they had no money to buy nor transportation to a pharmacy. We saw this over and over. There is an evening clinic for emergencies.

MSF, Drs Without Borders had been working inside Moria and moved out in protest to the inhumane conditions. They made a guarded tent clinic outside the main gate where they treated only women and children. The NGO Docmobile, German based had a daily clinic at another NGO site called Happy Family, a 40 min walk away. That was the medical care available for 8000 people.

We took on treating the single men and those in the olive grove who were in the greatest need for medical care.

Refugees for refugees was setting up a tent for us but due  to security we decided to do a mobile clinic. And so we rented a Hertz van, took out the back seats, folded down the middle, bought bins for pharmacy and became this “gorilla” medical van. Members of our team had worked together on 4 other missions. We could count on each other. We knew how to improvise in low resource situations we knew we would we work well together.

 For 17 days we showed up daily treating  an average of 60 pts a day, one day over 80. I do want to note that we had had our licenses translated into Greek and registered our ngo in Greece with the  Mytilini police, we were not totally rogue.

Dr Mark Ibsen examined pts in the back of the van  with great kindness, asking each person through a translator How may I serve you? He treated every patient with great dignity. He did dressings crouched on the ground or on his knees  and always gave his full attention to each person. He often was visibly shaken seeing the physical signs of torture, beatings, and bomb blasts.  There was always one more patient which was really sometimes 10 more. He only stopped when truly exhausted.

Tama Adelman an RN, Vietnam Vet, did pharmacy from the folded down middle seat. She could hear Dr Mark’s assessments and worked in tandem bagging and labeling the medications for the patients. She stayed on top of pharmacy needs and made rounds of Mytilini pharmacies for restocking antibiotics, paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain, creams for fungus and scabies.  Everyone got 30 days of high potency multi vitamins.  Tama’s competency was critical to our moving through 60 patients a day. Within 24 hours of my post on facebook for needing more funds for meds we received enough money to restock for 5 days. Thank you!

 Karen Cooper, the  massage therapist on our team is from here in Helena. She did 100’s of massages on an inflatable camping mat or a cement bench or plastic chair.  For those in pain from physical  injuries from torture  and those with PTSD her hands were a healing human touch. It was always heartwarming to look over and see her working.

Brian Ibsen, Dr  Ibsen’s  brother was our driver and general assistant.  Fluent in French he translated for the Africans and we were able to share stories with them. Brian was our initial entrance into the African camp. He was also very well educated on the history and the events leading to this crisis.

Our Translators magically appeared, They were  refugees wanting to help. We had translations in Farsi, Arabic, French, Dari.

I did Triage. I got to meet and greet  each person, in line . I introduced myself and  asked their name, age, their country were they sick or injured? I gave each a numbered card, took their vital signs and queried them about their health issues; what happened, where, how long, This often led to conversation about their country their family, their sadness.

Their health issues were mostly chronic pain related to torture or post  injury from bomb blasts, poor health from deplorable prison conditions. We treated  a lot of pneumonia’s, there was a nasty flu/virus in the camp.  It was cold and damp and people had inadequate shelter. There were gastric issues, many dental issues, poor diets, unmanaged  hypertension diabetes. There were cases of chicken pox, measles and pertussis. There was no dental services. There was stress and PTSD.

There are 8000 people with PTSD in Morai Camp , wounded in body and mind. There are no mental health services.  Just about everyone complained of inability to sleep , nightmares , night terrors. Dr Mark did some basic acupuncture for ptsd and Karen did massage. These fellow human beings have  fallen into just about every crack in the universe, they are so wounded physically, emotionally, spiritually.

I often felt I couldn’t breathe seeing their pain looking into  their eyes, seeing the scars on their backs their broken bones from beatings, the burns and shrapnel scars  from bomb blasts. The pain and loneliness of missing and murdered family. It was heart wrenching every minute. It was a challenge to stay centered and focused. Our team supported each other through this labyrinth of suffering and we kept each other focused on our task to give care hand to hand and heart to heart. We supported each others breakdowns.

I  kept my heart open with Buddhist practice. And I met each refugee heart to heart.

WHO ARE these refugees ?

They are fellow humans, they could be you, me, they could be our children, our aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, our neighbors.

It  happened to them, It happened in their country! It could happen to us. It could happen in our country!

They have lived Honorable lives, had Honorable  jobs. Their lives have been interrupted by years, decades of war, bombs falling from the skies and IEDs blowing up in the streets. Compounded by  ruthless dictators and fundamentalist zealots like ISIS, Boku Haram and the Taliban. They have been living in fear of being arrested and imprisoned, fearing their sons being stolen for soldiers and daughters stolen raped and enslaved. Living in their country is a death sentence.

They are running for their lives. Millions leaving their homes with nothing, walking for months over difficult  terrain, crossing armed borders, risking capture and imprisonment,  then getting onto a rubber boat meant for 10 packed with up to 50 risking the Aegean sea crossing where 1000s have drowned.

They arrive to LIVE. They arrive seeking a new honorable life. And they are brought to an overcrowded camp in deplorable conditions. Moria is like a prison.

I want to tell you about some of these people I met

Khalid- we had heard there was a Dr from Syria in the olive grove. So we excitedly asked for him to join us and he said Oh I am a Dr of Literature. He spoke perfect English, he became our Arabic translator.

He is an educated  intellectual,  suspicious under Assad's regime. He was arrested as the university shut down, imprisoned , tortured. After many months released  to find his neighborhood bombed out and his family nowhere to be found, I heard many times of family members who were LOST, maybe dead. When a neighborhood is bombed where  were the children? out playing? were they still in school? Were they in their home? Was the mother/wife inside cooking or maybe she had gone to the market and was saved. Often times their bodies are found in the rubble but not all . Were they brought to a hospital, was the hospital bombed. Where are they? These questions are often never answered.

And there were no answers for Khalid . He looked desperately waited and finally he fled Syria, walked across the border to Turkey. He was caught on the border and  imprisoned . He was housed for months in a cell, a cell so small with so many others they could only squat, there was no room to lie down for months. They waited for their turn in the torture room listening to the screams of those ahead of them. Finally released he crossed in an overloaded boat to Greece. He is a slight man, gentle, kind, hunched over with painful back and leg issues, somewhat malnourished and with the most  desperate sadness in his eyes.

An Iraqi woman, a former school teacher in her 30s clearly well educated, speaking very good English, a middle class woman, brought her mother to our gorilla van. She and her mother the only survivors of an extended family of 12. Her mother close to my age  had huge nodules in her neck and axilla, weight loss, looked anemic. Dr Ibsen examined her and thought lymphoma, without dx tools we couldn’t be sure and we could not do anything. The likely hood of her being treated was zero. Maybe she would be admitted into the poorly equipped district Mytilini hospital, but chemo? Long term cancer treatment?  doubtful. I am haunted by the circumstance that puts this woman at the end of her life- not in her home, not in her country, not with her community, but alone with only one surviving daughter, mourning  their losses and living in an iso box with 20 strangers… I hugged her, she grabbed both my hands  kissed them and kissed my cheeks saying  Shukria. Thank you Salaam my sister.

A tired sad eyed man from the Congo, 28 years old  complained of weight loss, intermittent fever, night sweats and coughing up blood for several months. Sure symptoms of TB, a diagnosis that will shut him out of asylum in almost every country, so rather than being taken to a country that can treat and cure him of TB he will be deported, back to the country he fled and in his case that could be an immediate imprisonment and a death sentence. This man with  probable active TB is living in a summer tent with 28 others.  Not good for him. Not good for them.

Another African man Herve, who we saw many times as we changed his foot dressings. He was  from the Cameroon. Apparently a well known rap singer , dancer and  performer. He told us how to find his recording on youtube. Apparently his rap was critical of the regime. He received death threats , his parents were murdered and he fled for his life. He entered  Turkey illegally,  he was sent to a prison and  beaten so badly on the bottom of his feet bones were broken, he limped up to our van using a crutch needing pain medication for his damaged feet; he will never dance again. He complained of night terrors and waking up screaming from sl

Basir  one of our Arabic translators is a chemist. A really bright man in his mid 40’s. He had worked in a hospital lab in Syria. He fled after his hospital was bombed and his community  destroyed. He became distant and said no more about himself or his family. He worked with us for many days translating.

Another young Syrian father asking for food because his children were crying with hunger. We found him some food and he showed us a phone and used an Arabic translation app ”Please get me out of here, Please help me” We could not

The most heart wrenching and powerful moment for me was the morning I had put some rose oil on. A young man on the triage line said “you smell like my mother” “I said well then let me give you a mothers hug” We hugged tightly, for a long while, both of us shedding tears. His mother had been murdered, he was a young man alone with no family  desperately trying to find a new life. We were heart to heart and I am so grateful to have been given that opportunity to give a mothers love in those moments.

This is all so heartbreaking and with story after story  it is hard not to focus on the misery. But somehow the human spirit prevails and people continue on in their grieve and their pain with inherent dignity and an amazing resiliency  There is a strong desire to survive and to seek normalcy.

 It was so important for us to accept their invitations to tea. It is normal to invite your friends to tea, and so we went to their tent and we accepted the food they offered us with dignity, sharing friendship.

I want to say a few words about the Greek people and particularly the people of Mytilini.  In the winter 2015 they awoke to over 13000 refugees arriving on their shores each day, for months, now years though the recent numbers decreased. They were cold wet hungry and sleeping on every doorsteps and in the  roadways. The people of this Island responded by feeding clothing and assisting these people. The people of Mytilini jumped into the sea assisting people off the boats. Led by the mayor of the Island they responded to the call of history and set up the first camp ahead of the UN.

Despite the poor Greek economy their borders remain open. They want to help the refugees and everyone I spoke to was appalled by the situation at the Morai Camp They want better for the refugees. But they are alone. Where is the EU Where is the US in stepping up to this crisis?

The analogy the mayor gave me was the Greeks are in an Olympic Weight lifting match and they are lifting the heaviest weight. They are  Waiting for the judges to say ok you can put it down. But there is silence and Greece is left holding this crisis. And Italy is currently experiencing a similar crisis with refugees crossing from Libya.

We must respond to this huge humanitarian crisis It continues to grow. It is out of our news cycle but it is going on. There are over 65 million refugees according to the UNHCR. It is a global problem and we need  global accountability. We live in a country that has directly been involved with waging war on foreign lands and supporting ruthless dictatorships for resource control or gain.

 Short of changing the world order as we know it I don’t know how it will be solved. I have to put my faith in the belief that we do this one person one step at a time, one by one. Today I ask you to bear witness to my witness,  lets work on our legislation to change immigration policies, to support the United Nations Refugee programs, to support NGOs working in the fields like Hands On Global. We need to refuse to support the war machine and an economy that has a  constant need to wage war. We need to do this because we believe in the inherent  worth and dignity of all human beings.

Hands On Global is a registered US based non profit working both domestically and internationally. Our mission is to contribute hands on assistance to communities around the globe for sustainable development of medical, environmental, and educational projects. We work hand to hand and heart to heart.

Valerie Hellermann, Executive Director

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Buddhist Women Engage Race and Exclusionary Politics in America

"Give Yourself Permission to be ALL IN"

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D.

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

payetunde@unitedtheologicalseminary.edu

 

This blog article is adapted from Yetunde’s keynote address to the first annual Sakyadhita USA conference, Diversity in the Dharma: Buddhist Women Engage Race and Exclusionary Politics in America, held at University of the West in Rosemead, CA on April 1, 2017.

 

Can women be agents of change for diversity and inclusion within Buddhism, Buddhist communities, and the U.S. if we are also actively and simultaneously excluding ourselves as women?  Let me ask this question another way.  Can women who believe they should negate their femaleness, who believe their femaleness is the cause of a man’s sexual anxieties and desires, who believe their very bodies are more impure than any man’s body, who believe there are no women in heaven, who desire to be men in the next life, actually be agents of a deep change for diversity and inclusion in the dhamma, our sanghas, and in our society?  Women who hold these beliefs CAN be agents of deep change, but the deep change will first have to come from within ourselves, then through ourselves, then into empowering relationships with others.  What will set off this kind of intrapsychic, interpersonal, and interdependent change?

     In order for this kind of change to begin, women under the sway of androcentric and misogynistic beliefs would do well to consider and contemplate The Buddha’s teachings on seeing through delusion.  As it pertains to delusion, let’s think about one of the prevalent human development stories pertaining to the historic Siddhartha Gautama before he became The Buddha.  It is said that the historic Siddhartha was a member of the Kshatriya caste -- the ruling and warrior caste, just under the highest and most privileged caste, the Brahmins.  As a member of the Kshatriya caste, Siddhartha would have had the power to kill enemies and enforce laws handed down by the Brahmins.   He could kill and enforce laws in a theocracy, or nondemocratic government.  In essence, he grew up deluded about the humanity of others because of his privilege. This privilege was not only related to class and caste, but also to gender.  Women at that time were gathered in concubines and harems, grouped together for the sexual pleasure of men.   Did the historic Siddhartha kill, enforce laws, and engage in nonconsensual group sex?  We don’t know, but history supports a reasonable conclusion that Siddhartha was embedded in a theocratic and thus nondemocratic, misogynistic, paternalistic, and androcentric culture, and that his teachings, even as The Buddha, included some of the deluded understandings of women at that time. Are we trying to be agents of change in the U.S. today with yesterday’s deluded beliefs about people? In order for Buddhist women to be deep change agents on inclusion and diversity, I believe we will have to separate Buddhist spiritual teachings and practices from the Buddhist anthropology that degrades women.  Do you need permission to make the separation between spiritual Buddhism and Buddhist anthropology?  If so, whose permission will you seek?  Grant yourself permission and try to avoid slipping into the spiritual bypass technique of “noself, no permission” when self empowerment becomes difficult.  Scholars, let’s continue the work of feminist Buddhist scholars by studying Buddhist anthropology and reviving Buddhist humanism through an interdisciplinary approach that includes anthropology and biology.  We can all grant ourselves permission to awaken, and we can begin the separation of Buddhist anthropology from Buddhist spirituality with an examination of two suttas.

     In the “Brahmayu Sutta” in The Majjhima Nikaya, it is stated that a great man has 32 marks.  One of those marks is a covered penis.  In the sutta on “The Eight Thoughts of a Great Man” in The Anguttara Nikaya it states that the dhamma is for one of few wishes, the wise, who delights in the unworldly, is content, secluded, energetic, mindful and has a concentrated mind.  With these two suttas we see a dualism between the body of a great man and the thoughts of a great man.  What are the body marks and thoughts of a great woman in Buddhism?  I have not yet found such concepts or lists in the Pali Canon.  Given the difference between a great male body and a great male mind, we can see through our own meditation experiences, including mindfulness of our bodies, that the description of the “great male mind” is not attached to whether a person has a penis  – dharma-mind attributes are attached to practice, education, and the support of a sangha truly invested in a person’s spiritual liberation, yet in some places, like Buddhist Nepal, the female body still remains highly problematic because through menstruating alone, women are deemed a threat to the wellbeing of other people and livestock.  To ensure the wellbeing of the village, menstruating women are sent into dangerous exile.  Menstruating women sometimes die and are often raped when in exile.  In the U.S., does the return of patriarchy, misogyny, androcentrism and the push towards a Christo-theo-democracy in the Executive Office, feel like American women are being deprived of support around the consequences of menstruating?

           In ancient Japanese Zen Buddhism, women were damned to the Blood Pool Hell because they menstruated.  I am not aware that menstruating, in Theravada Buddhism, is considered a condition that makes women impure, but what are we to make of the teachings that women cannot experience the highest concentrative states, or in some ancient Mahayana Buddhisms, become a bodhisattva?  Give yourself permission to separate Buddhist anthropology from Buddhist spirituality.  To promote inclusivity, that is, women’s inclusivity in Buddhism, you must give yourself permission to be ALL IN – body and mind, because being ALL IN is potentially life saving and dharma saving too.      

           Those of us who have studied the Therigatha know that those early Theravada Buddhist women simply utilized their understanding of the dharma and practice, just as it was taught, to challenge male monastics who attempted to denigrate them because they were women.  Those women knew it was safer to be in dharma communities than it was to be a woman in secular society.  Those of us who have studied the early Zen women know that they went to great lengths to diminish their femaleness in the eyes of the male monastics who attempted to denigrate them.  Self mutilation should no longer be practiced in order to make men feel good.  Buddhist women in the U.S., whether you are from here or not, are you willing to look deeply at Buddhist teachings and practices that perpetuate women as impure?  ARE YOU ALL IN?

     For those of us who are all in, here are a few considerations: 1) The next time you hear a person say something negative about women as a whole, educate them.  Say that The Buddha’s cultural context was severely misogynistic and that none of his realizations pertained to knowing women’s bodies and minds intimately.  Say that you will no longer sit quietly while people speak falsely about the nature of women, and be prepared to get up off your cushion and walk away from patriarchal, misogynistic, and androcentric dharma teachings.  Be open to starting a female-affirming sangha.

2) Proclaim compassion and Right Knowledge as your path to engaging race and exclusionary politics.  Buddhist misogynistic anthropology is largely devoid of compassion for girls and women, and is steeped in ignorance and fear of women along with a resignation that society cannot be changed.  Practice self-compassion if you are a woman exposed to these teachings, and seek out the truth of women – our bodies, our minds, our experiences, our power, etc.

3)  Familiarize yourself with the findings from the Buddhist Men’s Conference on Eradicating Misogyny.  Are you familiar with these findings?  This is a trick question to get your attention onto the probability that Buddhist men as a whole are not doing their work TOGETHER to engage the misogynistic exclusionary politics they benefit from.  Part of our work is to encourage them to do their work.  To the men here and in your communities, ask them about the idea of planning and attending a Buddhist Men’s Conference on Eradicating Misogyny in Buddhism, then ask them to do it.  If it doesn’t get done, we will still do our work, but we will do it knowing for sure that only a part of the work will be done, but that is it better than no work at all.  We will proceed in this work with the knowledge that having “the marks” of a great woman are not based on genitalia or anything physical, but on Right Intention and Right Action as we cultivate compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy, courage and wisdom.  These are some of the “marks” of being a great Buddhist woman.

           I want to thank all the feminists who have been working on these issues since the time of the Buddha.  Know that our work today is a continuation, not the beginning, nor the end.  Let’s do our part now by giving ourselves permission to be ALL IN in our sanghas, in our country, and in the world.

Power to the feminine within us all!  Thank you.

Welcome to the Timely Issues Section of our Blog

Dear Friends,

Welcome. In this forum we will host conversations on Timely Issues for the blog of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, We are your moderators, Justin Whitaker and Jason VonWachenfeldt.

Each month we will select a topic and request contributions on that topic from a variety of Buddhist and Christian authors, academic and non-academic alike. Our goal will be to publish at least two contributions each month to generate conversation. These contributions should be short, 600-1000 words, and speak from the place of a religious commitment, even if not necessarily confined to more traditional stances within any given religion. Our job will be to foster a variety of traditions and perspectives.

In this, our first month, we have already reached out to scholars, practitioners, and activists on the topic of responses to Charlottesville, and selected contributions will be published in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, we'd like to invite your feedback on topics that you feel should be addressed in the coming months, with an eye toward those topics that are likely to remain timely and pressing in the future. Please leave topic suggestions below in the comments section and check back soon for our first contributions.

With thanks,

Justin Whitaker and Jason VonWachenfeldt