Monasteries of the Heart

Buddhist Training

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Buddhist monks from Tibet are in Erie this week for five days. Gannon University, a local Roman Catholic institution, brought them on campus to for interreligious dialogue and cultural exchange.

I went to the opening event of Buddhist chant, ritual and dance. One of the monastic exercises the monks demonstrated for the audience was “debate.” The monk emcee explained that as part of their training the monks “debate” spiritual teachings for three hours a day, six days a week. The debates get very physical and animated. To demonstrate one monk sat on the stage floor and the others argued with him vehemently, challenging his every utterance, pushing and shoving, swinging their malas (rosaries) wildly over his head occasionally, until the monk came to some “enlightenment.” The training for full enlightenment takes about 20 years.

As I was leaving a woman grabbed me and said, “What did you think of that, sister?” Before I could answer, she continued, “I had to leave. I got too nervous and upset. It looked so violent. I could never do it. I would wilt and cry. There has to be another way.”

I smiled and went on my way. She’s right. There are other ways. But what I was thinking was, “My family gatherings are Buddhist training sessions.” This past 4th of July, for example, we held the usual family and friends picnic that erupted into two shouting “debates” that made the monks look like wimps. It got so animated that one person left for a smoke, three other went to another corner of the yard, many others ran inside for safety and shelter. I loved it.

All I could think of was how happy my deceased father must be, knowing the family tradition lives on without him. He was a great Master Monk, always asking provocative questions, never accepting an easy answer, forcing you to argue both sides of a question. He did it at the dinner table and at most family gatherings. These “debates” always meant loud, loud voices, fists slamming on tables, red faces, veins popping in the neck and when it was over—it was over.

Just like at our Fourth of July picnic when the “debate” focused on Unions—a very spiritual topic, one at the heart of Catholic social teaching. When it was over the debaters shared a drink and laughed a lot. All of them had withstood the onslaught, explained and clarified their positions, listened and--maybe even--learned a bit. One step toward enlightenment.