Assisi 2011: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Some folks asked if I got to see the Pope, shake his hand or kiss his ring.  Others asked if I got to speak at the conference and how everything went.  Here are some thoughts and reflections.

A few things about the conference was inspiring.  For one, the Pope in his speech declares that “As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith.  We acknowledge it with great shame. … “.  I thought this is an interesting acknowledgement on his part.  There will be naysayers … but oh well, there will always be.

The other thing is the sheer number of volunteers involved from various centres in Italy who are not directly from the Vatican or the Pontifical Council.  They did a great job making all the delegates feel welcome and at home!

Then there is the public.  They really went wild … in a good way! 😉 … they cheered, they clapped, they shook our hands, took our pictures … we felt like stars! hehe … I think it was partly because Italians are really warm, smiley and friendly people, and partly because some of the public were tourists. … have I mentioned that Italians are very warm, smiley and friendly?

In
the event, I did get to talk to some fellow delegates and priests from the Pontifical Council.  While the Pope’s message was encouraging, I shared some concerns with them.

Firstly, in practically every inter-faith dialogue, there is an unspoken (or perhaps spoken!) assumption that all religions believe in God(s).  I’ve shared at a few inter-faith dialogues that Buddhists do not have a belief in a (creator) God.  This is often to the temporary horror and shock of the participants and organisers.  Then I tell them that despite this, it does not make us Buddhists, their enemy nor they ours.  To me, whitewashing this fact or glossing over it will undermine inter-faith dialogues and cause our mutual understanding to remain superficial.

In the Pope’s message, “…the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence”.  Buddhism proves exactly the opposite while Atheists are protesting repeatedly online that lack of belief in God (or religion) does not necessarily make one immoral or violent.  Buddhism do not have a belief in creation or in God, but I think Buddhists has so far proven to be of the meeker lot.  While I can understand the Pope’s point of view as a Christian, inter-faith dialogue should recognise that religions include those without a belief in God and that peace is possible and has been attained through such religions as well.

A second point I raised to a fellow delegate is on proselytization or conversion.  While we gather as “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”, will we truly have peace and inter-faith harmony if conversion and evangelism is still around the corner?  While I know of many Christians (Catholics and Protestants alike) who are moderate and do not go around attacking other religions, there are many who do.  By remaining silent on the matter, they are unwittingly endorsing with their silence.  I know of some Buddhists who have lost faith in inter-faith dialogues because of this.  And can we blame them?  How can there be genuine trust and understanding if evangelical Christians continue to disparage and attack other religions (including Buddhism) while moderate Christians remain silent on this?  To have meaningful inter-faith dialogue, we need to address this.

The last interesting thing I want to share is my encounters with people in this trip.  There are many whom I chat with, and at least four to five who through our conversation, professed their liking and affinity towards Buddhism even if they are Catholics.  What is most striking is their reason for doing so.  In their words, they like Buddhism because “it is a religion about Happiness and Love” whereas “Christianity (and Catholicism) is a religion of Sin and Repentance”.  This totally blew me away and I wondered how interesting that Westerners are having such a very positive outlook of Buddhism while Asians (or Singaporeans?) may have a slightly different view of it.  In fact, I felt obliged to defend for Christianity in one instance, especially when the Vatican security staff very openly shared this with me, in front of a Catholic nun.  I think I almost fainted!

Ironically before my Italy trip someone just told me how she has this notion that Buddhism is all about Sin and how there are hundred and one taboo, that every other thing one do is Sinful.  Makes me wonder where she got all those ideas from.  Bad marketing on Buddhism’s end?  *gasp*

Buddhism is a religion of Happiness and Love … what else can it be? 😉