Buddhists and Catholics travel to the Vatican to talk about the 'mystery of life'

Buddhist monks celebrate Vesakh Day.Reuters

Representatives from the Buddhist and Catholic communities in the US are holding an interreligious dialogue this week near Rome and will meet with Pope Francis today. The five-day meeting, which began on Tuesday is on the subject of 'Suffering, Liberation and Fraternity'.

The 46 American representatives have gathered at the headquarters of the Focolare movement near Rome, a predominantly Catholic movement which does also have members from other faiths, including Buddhism. The delegates have come from New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington DC, and include members of the major Buddhist traditions in the US.

Why now?

There have been dialogues between American Buddhists and Catholics before – the US Conference of Catholic Bishops co-sponsored a series of dialogues Catholic-Buddhist dialogues in northern California between 2003 and 2009. But the organisers of this week's say that this new meeting is about building on Pope Francis' invocation to build "fraternity" between peoples – as mentioned in his 2014 message for World Peace Day.

Fr Leo Lefebure of Georgetown University, who is attending the meeting, told Vatican Radio that the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) had asked the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to launch a new set of conversations on the theme of "Be friends and help the world".

PCID president, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, said in his opening address: "In a world, where diversity is seen as a threat, our coming together... is a sign of our openness towards one another and our commitment to human fraternity."

He added: "We are all pilgrims and I see this Buddhist-Catholic dialogue as a part of our ongoing quest to grasp the mystery of our lives and the ultimate Truth."

That all might sound rather warm and cuddly (because it is) but essentially it seems that this event is less about looking at what Catholics and Buddhists have in common theologically, and instead considering where they can work together for the common good.

The good of humankind is pretty all-encompassing, so what's up for discussion?

The event organiser, Donald W Mitchell from Perdue University, said the dialogue would be "about nature, causes, and healing of relational ills and the social problems they cause. Then, we will explore ways to work together upon our return to the United States to heal and reconcile relational ills in our cities in the spirit of fraternity."

Fr Lefebure also said that the dialogue would consider the concept of "suffering and the end of suffering". He explained that it was based on ideas across both traditions which look at how we cause our own suffering, and can also find a "way beyond suffering", as the Buddha taught.

In a message to Buddhists on the Feast of Vesakh (also known as 'Buddha Day') Cardinal Tauran defined some of these social ills. He wrote: "we live in a world all too often torn apart by oppression, selfishness, tribalism, ethnic rivalry, violence and religious fundamentalism, a world where the 'other' is treated as an inferior, a nonperson, or someone to be feared and eliminated if possible."

He called on Buddhists and Christians to work together to be outspoken in denouncing these things, and to be "healers" and "reconcilers". It is this work that the delegates will discussm particularly thinking within the context of the five cities represented.

Ok, so where do Buddhists and Catholics converge?

Fifty years ago the Catholic Church issued a declaration on the Church's relationship with other faiths called Nostra Aetate ('In Our Time'). About Buddhism it says: "Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination."

Having highlighted certain aspects of numerous religions, the document says: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions," and it is on this foundation that the Church's inter-faith work is based.

Fr Lefebure told Vatican Radio that although Catholics and Buddhists differ on their "fundamental assumptions" their virtues and values often "converge to a very, very strong degree".

There are overlaps in religious practice between the two faiths, even though they may mean different things in each tradition. Meditation, for example, which is a common practice among Buddhists is also done by many Christians. A survey by Pew Research found that 36 per cent of Catholics meditate at least once a week. (Still substantially less than the 61 per cent of Buddhists who said the same.)

Fr Lefebure spoke about the number of people who had found that their Christian faith had been enriched by Buddhist meditation techniques – though he also noted that there were some fundamental differences.

It would be wrong to look at the two faiths and not think about their shared commitment to the environment – particularly after the publication of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment last week. The pontiff's call to live simply for the benefit of others resonates with the Buddhist Statement on Ecology (1996): "By moving away from self-centeredness, sharing wealth more, being more responsible for ourselves, and agreeing to live more simply, we can help decrease much of the suffering in the world."

And, like many faiths, Buddhism shares the Christian emphasis on working for peace. Pope Francis' message for World Peace Day this year spoke about the importance of working to combat modern forms of enslavement, including poverty and human trafficking.

In his message for Vesakh Carinal Tauran wrote to Buddhists, highlighting this shared concern: "we share the conviction that modern slavery and human trafficking are grave crimes, open wounds on the body of contemporary society. In one section of the 'Eightfold Path' – namely 'Right Livelihood' – the Buddha declares that trading in live beings, including slaves and prostitutes, is one of five occupations that are not to be engaged in (AN 5.177). He instructs that possessions are to be acquired peacefully, honestly and by legal means, without coercion, violence or deceit, and by means that do not cause harm or suffering (cf. AN4.47; 5.41; 8.54). In this way, Buddhism promotes respect for the life and freedom of each person... As Buddhists and Christians committed to respect for human life, we must cooperate together to end this social plague."

That all sounds very chummy – what are the points of difficulty between the two faiths?

Clearly there are many doctrinal differences. Although the Catholic Church agreed to recognise what was "true and holy" in Buddhism, it also recognises Jesus as "the way, the truth and the life" and teaches salvation through Christ. And the Church teaches a belief in God as an absolute, whereas Buddhism is a nontheistic religion. There are also many obvious differences in rites sacraments and practices.

Religious persecution is another point of friction. In Sri Lanka in particular, a majority-Buddhist nation, Christians and Muslim groups often experience persecution from Buddhist extremists. But this is itself partly a response to colonial oppression (felt in many places in South-East Asia), often seen as synonymous with the Christian West.

The point of this week's meeting, however, is to emphasise the common ground and develop working relationships between people of faith for the good of the world.