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Jesuits from different parts of the world gathered in Cambodia recently to dialogue with Buddhist monks, engaging them on three levels - academic, spiritual and practical. This holistic approach to inter-religious dialogue is one that has prevailed in the regular Christian-Buddhist Workshop of the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific for many years.

It also provides an opportunity for “networking, friendship and fellowship among Jesuits engaged in Buddhist studies and dialogue,” as first time participant Fr Jaroslav Duraj, a Polish Jesuit based in Macau, discovered. This year’s workshop, held from August 8 to 12 in Siem Reap, saw 16 Jesuits come from Korea, Philippines, United States, Japan, India, China, Thailand, Nepal and Myanmar.  They were joined by four Cambodian Buddhist monks, a former Jesuit and Buddhist activist, a former Buddhist monk and a Maryknoll priest.

Fr Jerry Cusumano SJ from Sophia University in Japan presented on Zen and Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, showing how Zen and the Spiritual Exercises complement rather than contradict each other. Fr Bernard Senecal SJ from Sogang University, South Korea spoke about "Christ as the Awakened One", describing Buddhism and Christianity as religions of awakening. He pointed to Christ's mystical experiences, times of prayer and docility to the Holy Spirit as evidence of his enlightenment.  Fr Thierry Meynard SJ from Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China presented on “Beyond Religious Exclusivism: The Jesuit Attacks against Buddhism and Xu Dashou’s Refutation of 1623”, examining the dynamics of religious competition in Asia evoked by Christianity in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

“[The talks by] Jerry Cusumano and Bernard Senecal helped me to have a deeper understanding of our own spirituality and tradition, and to be rooted in them. And at the same time to be open to the other, especially Buddhism and Zen,” shared Fr Mathew Cyril SJ from Madurai Province.  He also found Fr Meynard’s presentation very informative and educational. “The question that came in my mind was:  Can Christianity become an inclusive religion, accommodating and respecting other faiths and believes? If it can, I think, it will be a great step for peace and brotherhood in the world.”

The group also heard from former Jesuit Bob Maat about his journey with Venerable Maha Ghosananda in promoting peace in Cambodia through a peace march. “That he (Maat) continues to walk with the people and promote peace in Cambodia is an inspiration as well as a challenge for all of us Jesuits who want to follow Jesus closely,” shared Fr Lawrence Soosai SJ .

Buddhist monk Ven Sovechea talked about "Buddhism and Christian Spirituality" from an interfaith perspective, beginning with the idea that all religions teach us to prevent conflict. He gave many examples of interfaith work in Cambodia grounded on the teachings of important Buddhist figures, such as Emperor Ashoka, Maha Ghosananda and Thich Nhat Hanh. He concluded with the idea that in the 21st Century, conversion should not be from one religion to another, but from greed to generosity, from hatred to kindness and from delusion to enlightenment. 

“The young Venerable is a living example of the growth of Buddhist education in Cambodia, a country still recovering from the ravages of war, especially in the field of education,” said Fr In-gun Kang SJ, JCAP Coordinator for Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

Memorial Mass for Fr Noel Sheth SJ

During their workshop, the group also remembered Fr Noel Sheth SJ, a beloved companion and scholar in Hinduism and Sanskrit language, who passed away in July.  Fr Cyril Veliath led the memorial Mass, during which the participants shared how they had been touched and inspired by Fr Sheth, who was a member of the core group.

“It will be somehow consoling to wish not only for the eternal rest of Fr Noel, but also his eternal work between us for this world,” shared Fr Senecal.

Prayers were offered for Fr Sheth in the 12th Century , the oldest temple community in Siem Reap, where the Jesuits joined more than 70 young monks in their evening meditation and chanting. Afterwards, Fr Kang told them about Fr Sheth’s life.

The participants also visited other temples and historical sites, including the Sophia University Asia Center in Siem Reap where they learnt about a project for the protection, restoration and conservation of Angkor monuments and sites.  They also went to the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake where they heard about the difficult life of the undocumented Vietnamese people living in floating huts. The undeniable reality of poverty and marginalisation of the people was for them a confirmation of how important interreligious dialogue is in the service of faith and the promotion of justice. 

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