04/02/2009, 00.00
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Social activities promote inter-faith dialogue between Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics

by J.B. VU
In Ho Chi Minh City, the local diocese organises a well-received seminary to improve mutual understanding. Buddhists and Catholics work together to help street kids.
Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Vietnam is a country of many faiths. Buddhism represents about 17 per cent of the population with more than 20,000,000 members and more than 20,000 pagodas. In the 10th century it even became the state religion. Catholics constitute about 7 per cent of the population with some 7,000,000 members and more than 6,000 churches. Most Vietnamese (68 per cent) partake however in traditional ancestor worship. The remaining 2 per cent is made up of Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and followers of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao.

Catholics and Buddhists have been working on inter-faith dialogue. On 10 March 14 postulants from nine religious congregations in the diocese of Saigon visited the Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan district to exchange ideas and experiences. The Catholic nuns were warmly welcomed by their Buddhist hosts and both groups expressed a desire to help each other.

Last Saturday the pastoral centre of the archdiocese of Saigon reciprocated by organising a seminar titled “Exchanging and Applying the Buddha’s Words in Religious Life”. Learning and exchanging are in fact part of a study programme that focuses on inter-faith dialogue.

At the end of the courses, each student should know how to approach other religions. In particular, greater knowledge about Buddhism should increase understanding, sympathy and harmony as well as solidarity towards others. 

Nun Luu Thi Dieu Minh, a Buddhist scholar also known by her religious name of Nguyeân Ñaïo, illustrated the concepts and vision of religious life that are strongly associated with the Pāli Discourse Collection, a series of prayers by Śākyamuni (Buddha) collected over time in the three centuries that followed his death.

The Buddhist scholar gave course participants the opportunity to understand certain aspects  of Buddhism, especially how difficult it can be to take religious orders (ñi tu) as well as forgive and live with others. Catholic participants learnt how Vietnamese Buddhists conceive, view and explain human life. At the end everyone was happy to take advantage of this constructive opportunity for Catholic-Buddhist dialogue.

Of particular relevance was the meeting with Buddhist nuns at the Phuoc Hai Pagoda. Working in small groups dedicated to social work, participants shared the nuns’ social activities.

Dong Nhuan, a Buddhist nun, knew very little about social work. Fortunately for her, she was invited by the Catholic Church to learn more about the latter’s social programmes so that now she is taking courses from Go Chi Minh City Open University.

“I feel small,” she told AsiaNews, “but I want to do a lot of things. The pagoda enabled me to study for a B.A. in social work, fulfilling the Buddha’s ideas. I don’t know whether I shall stay after I get my degree, but I think I am going to continue to work for the pagoda’s social activities.”

Another Buddhist nun, Hue Tri from Dieu Giac Pagoda, which set up a compassionated house in 1987 (after Vietnam adopted an open door policy to favour economic development), said: “I am Buddhist, a disciple of Buddha. Doctor Vu is a Catholic social worker. Together we work with street kids. Every month we meet for regular discussion. The Buddha’s and Jesus’ good nature mean that when someone cries, Buddha or Jesus comes. When they see these unfortunate children, Buddha or Jesus come. I would like to do something for these unfortunate children as Buddha and Jesus taught me.”

Xuan Loan is a pastor with an underground Church, a ‘home Church’. “We are small groups,” she said. “Our members pray in small groups. I think that the temple of God is in our hearts.” In fact, “Your body is my temple”, Jesus told the crowd. “Our Church focuses especially on the development of the person. If we separate from our group we can lose strength in moral and spiritual terms.”

In a book Card John Baptist Phaïm Minh Man, who is in charge of the archdiocese of Saigon, wrote about his own experience.

“In a basic community Christians are invited for communion. Indeed, the basic community is the first and basic nucleus of the Church. In the basic community, every group member is aware of his or her duty to believe and spread the Good News. Actually, this is an original factor in human promotion and development.”

“A poor Church is suitable to the wide ocean of the poverty,” wrote the cardinal, “for a Church that is small and modest can enter the ocean of the poor, whereas a Church that is without the poor will shut itself off from those who dream to be human, about food to eat, clothes to wear, go to school and work. It is time to create new ‘models’ for the Church and small communities which can more easily take part in the life of poor people. If I work in a poor community, with not much influence and taking up little space ,others will not be afraid to come to me, openly and without reservations. On the contrary, we can expand more than if remain closed so that we can finally concern ourselves with the whole of human life, not just celebrate the sacraments and prayers. We can get directly involved in improving the material life of people, elevate their culture and education, especially among the poor.”

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