Is Peace Possible?
War, strife, deaths. The cause of so much of the woes in our world is too often religion. Those who promise heavenly peace unfortunately become the very ones who prevent peace on earth. Peace seems impossible. However, we can help to lengthen the moments of peace and allow more people to savor those moments in this lifetime.
Perhaps as none before it, the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions stood as one of the great expressions of hope for increased cooperation and peaceful initiatives between adherents of the world’s religions. At the fifth Parliament of World’s Religions in Melbourne in December 2009, I got a taste of peace on earth. The Muslims sat with the Hindus, the pagans held hands with rabbis, and the Dalai Lama asked Elder Woman of Wurundjeri, “Is this [piece of animal skin] alive?” Here are more snippets, though transitory have inspired me, and hopefully will others. As the Dalai Lama urged us to move beyond socializing, so I am formulating my PeaceNext plan!
My Top Ten Snapshots from the Parliament of World’s Religions (the Parliament)
1. The Hefty Program (Book)
A huge throng of people lined up to check on their Parliament registration. The generally relaxed conversations and chatters seemed to pause and stutter as registrants in line eye the people turned away. Those not on the list for some reason or the other could not get their tags and Parliament bags. As the wait dragged on, even the two-pounder program book seemed like a prized possession.
And I should proudly proclaim here that I never opened up my program book a second time! (Although I did haul the rock back home as a souvenir.) Let me tell you why.
A few days before I flew overseas, I received the electronic file of the Parliament draft program. I hated having to scroll down one column to see the bottom half and then scroll back up to see the right hand column for 200 some pages, but I thought I needed to prepare myself for a convention swarming with 10,000 religious fanatics. I did not think I would be able to think straight in Melbourne, considering jet lag was a possibility too.
I got a headache from staring at the small fonts on the computer screen and the choices to make among 650 some sessions offered. Refusing to print so much paper, I penciled a grid for each day. Here is a generic version for those of you joining us in 2014:
1 ________________ several alternatives. . .
2_________________several alternatives. . .
I was most grateful for having prepared a notebook with this fantasy schedule of sessions and all information related to and to come for the Parliament. It was worth the herculean effort to do some homework ahead of time!
2. Opening Bliss
I was not going to be an impressionable novice Parliament attendee, I had thought to myself. I scrutinized the people, the setting, the program. . . I was knocked off of my feet though. The Tzu Chi women signed and danced in silky silence. I was dumbfounded by the tears brimming over in my eyes. My slight embarrassment eased though, fortunately, when I saw my friend tuck aside a corner of her shirtsleeve that she used to dry her eyes. The three keynote speakers, the fiery Rabbi David Saperstein, the fearless Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, and the serene His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, were so different and yet phenomenal in their own right.
In the middle of the plenary, the man in orange robes behind me tapped me to take a photo of him and his neighbor, a man who seemed utterly different. My mild annoyance immediately melted into a tickle by this image of a bald nun in bright yellow taking a photo of these two gentlemen. Ah, only at the Parliament!
All together in two rows to my right were the Sikhs dressed in white from head to toe, long white beards included. They responded enthusiastically to the calls of the Sikh on stage during his ceremony. It struck me as funny. They were like children among the several thousand in the audience, competing to be the loudest.
We were so blissed out after the plenary. I am generally quite calm and yet I could not help but break out in a giggle. I swear the Melbourne subway station never had so many people beaming with smiles.
3. Solacing Souls
In a slightly intoxicated state of joy, we met Christie when she asked for directions to her station. Riding to the same stop, Christie explained that she is a dancer. She was also incredibly moved by the Tzu Chi dance. She had spontaneously choreographed those exact movements in the past. She wanted to learn what the dance meant. Learning that this dance is a symbol of the awakened being of compassion resonated with Christie deeply. She is often overwhelmed by the feelings she has for others’ pain and her powerlessness in helping.
Among the several encounters we had, she at one point sought help. We sat in a quiet corner of the busy exhibition center. She asked me what I saw. I saw a flare up of emotion in her. We did a loving-kindness meditation together where she was empowered to direct energy of compassion toward herself and others. The peace jewelry crafted with color and care left anonymously as gifts for us was just what she needed to have around her neck. Christie appeared to me like a little girl who needed love– not in the form of an extended hand, but as a supportive presence by her side until she stood up on her own. I felt unfit for this role but realized that I was being solaced too as I allowed myself to get out of the way of the divine.
I had already registered for the Parliament at its regular rate before I learned about the volunteer program. Without realizing what benefits I would receive for becoming a volunteer, I signed up. I thought it would be a good way to be a part of a like-minded group of individuals. It was sheer delight to discover the discount we would enjoy and later the company we would find.
The family of volunteers had a corner to retreat to during the Parliament. People were sharing food, massages, and light, yup, apparently a prayer and a dosage of light energy sent with hands a few inches away from the recipient.
One of the greatest benefits I got out of volunteering at the Parliament was the indelible lesson that I should consider myself a volunteer in every situation. It is a most fulfilling way to develop servant leadership.
In two sessions related to Christian-Buddhist dialogue, the Buddhist panelist did not show up. I explained my views with the preface that I had been admitted to Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union’s Ph.d program but opted not to go because I was afraid of arguments for which I was about to enter. To my surprise, there were GTU students present. Their wish to connect and others’ encouraging remarks burned a reminder in my head about delving deeper into theological inquiries.
This packed room of several hundred I rushed into had a very unusual seating arrangement. There was a table in the center of concentric circles of chairs. Dr. Hans Kung, Dr. Simon Longstaff, Steve Killelea, and the moderator were at the table. They offered a “seat at the table” for people with comments and questions. Seeing the long line of men queued up and no women speaker at the table, both men and women objected. An uproar led to a designated seat at the table for women.
I had a comment to make but preferred not to use the “affirmative action” seat; nevertheless I was shuffled up there and given a seat by someone in the front row and finally reaching the seat vacated by the woman speaking before me. . .
After that session, one of the people who came up to me was Dr. Carla Mae Streeter, a Dominican nun and a theology professor. We had already met in at least two other sessions and so she came up, held my hands, and looked deeply into me. She told me about some gifts that she observed in me and counseled me to take steps so that “you may not be disposed of.” “You must still feel like you were not supposed to be at the table because you began with, ‘Why is a Buddhist nun who keeps to the vow of poverty sitting here?’” In fact, I remember my pause after the question and how the moderator looked distinctly at me with that exact question in his eyes. (Fortunately I had a pretty good response.)
Dr. Streeter shared with me her vows and what they meant to her, advice and caution spoken from her personal experience. In her humble and down to earth manner, she simply stated, “Time is ripe for women.” I could not agree more. My heart burst with warmth and gratitude for a mentor from another religion. Thank you, Dr. Streeter!
7. Sending Love
A brown scroll spread across the convention floor. The poster was to carry messages from Parliament participants to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. While standing there reading different comments and wishes, I saw a man who had finished writing raise his palm and direct it at his message, as if to energize his words with all his might. He seemed to be oblivious to his spectator and perhaps the surrounding at large. I was most moved by his ease and sincerity; he probably thought this was the most natural thing for him to do in the world.
8. The Parliament, Live!
Spiritual Resources broadcasted live some of the Parliament sessions and numerous interviews. I was privileged to see the modest operation in a hotel room and be among the several hundred who were interviewed. I enjoyed the few minutes I had to talk about one of my inspired causes, a network of interfaith women in North America. Even the long wait in the hotel lobby was worthwhile. I got a glimpse of H.H. the Dalai Lama and his entourage. I also enjoyed the conversation about women who were ahead of their times with my fellow interviewee, Dr. Allison Stokes. Dr. Stokes researched the her-story of female religious speakers at the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions. To me, this little known phenomenon meshes so well with the description of a vast array of female teachers in the Flower Garland Sutra and other ancient Buddhist texts. Women ahead of their times and women of ancient times had long been acknowledged when we thought it was impossible then and now. It is time to re-enliven those already recognized roles of women.
I had one free day in Melbourne after the Parliament. I went to bed the night before thinking I was going to sleep more and head to the airport early; instead I woke up with a real need to see green. It hit me that I had spent all of last week in some concrete buildings. Digging through the Australian “summer” tourist guide, I decided on the Hall of Famer Royal Botanic Gardens.
At the Krishna Restaurant downtown, we were immediately spotted as Parliament attendees. This made for pleasant chatter with people flying in to hear H.H. the Dalai Lama speaking at the Melbourne Exhibition Center that afternoon and absolutely original conversation with a couple aborigines who resented the term, ab-origine, and only wanted to be referred to as “origines.”
Parliament attendees seemed like family. And on that day wherever we turned and met another attendee, it mostly felt like a reunion. This happened even at the airport. I saw a fellow attendee from the Parliament sitting and chomping on a sandwich in the café and of course, we had to give each other a hug!
10. Prayers of Peace
H.H. the Dalai Lama tied up the bow on the Parliament week beautifully with his childlike innocence, calm under heavy security and his urging that Parliament attendees move beyond socializing and into action.
I was proud to be a part of a session that focused on action. With the Parliament’s diplomatic and smart display of the Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam as a sacred site, Thich Nhat Hanh’s talk via the web and information on the recent assaults on Bat Nha, a group of us managed to organize an action plan during a session. As a result, more than 200 at the Parliament signed a petition on behalf of Bat Nha and some sent prayers to the brothers and sisters of Bat Nha in the video Bat Nha Blessings.
In the interest of peace and in inviting others to also taste some extended moments of peace, I hope to share more talks and interviews of spiritual luminaries on topics such as compassion and interfaith, help nurture a women’s interfaith network in North America, and co-create an intrafaith network of Buddhists and Buddhist groups in North America.
For those who are interested in any of these peace initiatives, please contact me or join the Parliament of World’s Religions newly launched social network, PeaceNext!