In a provocative op-ed this morning in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama speaks of his 1968 encounter with Thomas Merton and the need for religions to highlight "what unites us." Interestingly, Merton is often criticized by some Catholics for not being "sufficiently Catholic" towards the end of his life (when he travelled through Asia en route to an interfaith conference in Thailand, where he was accidentally electrocuted) or, likewise, for not wanting to return to religious life after the Asia trip. (This critique showed up when Merton was removed from a roster of Catholic lives in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults in 2005.) Both of these critiques are answered by his voluminous journals, his published writings at the time, the letters he sent to the monastery during his trip, as well as strong comments from his brothers in the Abbey of Gethsemani. Somewhat hidden in this op-ed on interfaith relations, however, is a comment from the Dalai Lama, who adverts to Merton's desire to remain "perfectly faithful" to Christianity.
Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.
An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.
A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.
I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.