His Holiness The Dalai Lama
The possibilities of dialogue
Religion in conflict situations: Problem or solution? (II)
The possibilities of dialogue
January 17, 2000
During the last week of November, 1999, I participated in a remarkable dialogue that was held at the beautiful Beit Gavriel Conference Center on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee with twenty-five religious leaders from hot spots around the world, including religious leaders from Israel and Palestine. This dialogue which featured His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as religious leaders from Ireland, Bosnia, South Africa, the United States, The Netherlands and India -- was part of a larger conference on World Peace co-sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) and Jubillenium.
Many of the people who gathered in Israel for these three days are used to going to large international conferences with lots of big plenums and major speeches. This was a very different kind of encounter. Instead of a series of monologues, this was a genuine dialogue, where people actually spoke with one another and shared experiences and insights in an ambience of complete mutual trust and utmost sincerity.
Much of the success of this process can be attributed to the professional facilitators who moderated the discussions with quiet and sensitive expertise and compassion. Professor Mari Fitzduff, of the University of Ulster of Northern Ireland and Professor Ron Burr of the University of Southern Mississippi, teamed up with Robin Twite, a veteran facilitator in the field of conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine, to provide the right mixture of guidance and good spirit that were needed. This served to motivate this extraordinary group of people to share their experiences and knowledge in a forthright and candid manner, which turned out to be personally meaningful to each participant in the group.
The impetus for the idea for this dialogue came from The Israel Friends of Tibet, an organization in Israel devoted to helping the Tibetan people in exile. Over a year ago, representatives of this organization approached ICCI with the challenge of organizing an interreligious seminar in Israel which the Dalai Lama would attend. He had been to Israel in 1994 on a pilgrimage (during which ICCI hosted him for a lecture) and he wanted to return if we could organize a dialogue with other religious leaders. We took up the challenge, and a team of people -- consisting of myself, Rabbi David Rosen, director-general of the Anti-Defamation League in Israel and Co-Vicechairperson of ICCI, Robin Twite, secretary-general of the WCRP (World Conference of Religion and Peace) Israel chapter, and Yonatan Tsevi, a member of ICCI and a representative of the Israel Friends of Tibet began to meet regularly. At a later stage, we were joined by Mr. Rafi Luzon of Jubillenium. All of this led to the Dalai Lama coming to the dialogue and, in his typical fashion, he was an active listener as well as a genuine participant.
At the first session of the dialogue, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shared with us some of his insights concerning spirituality and pluralism. Religious traditions can provide some hope in situations of hopelessness, he said. Moreover, material development alone can not fulfill all of our human needs. Rather, material development and spiritual development should go together There should be two kinds of spirituality, one without religious faith, a sense of caring about one another as human beings, irrespective of whether one is a believer or not, and one based on religious faith Indeed, major religious traditions can and do contribute to the promotion of human values All major religions talk about love, compassion, and caring, but we don t implement this enough There are many religious traditions religious pluralism is abounding, and we need to promote the concept of pluralism.
There was much agreement in the room with the Dalai Lama s words and to his overall message. As in a recent seminar, which also brought him to Israel last June, under the auspices of the Interreligious Friendship Group of San Francisco led by Richard Blum and Bishop William Swing -- it was an unusual privilege to be part of a dialogue with this world spiritual and political leader. I was impressed again this time not only by his message but also by his method. It was clear that his practice of mindfulness had trained him to be able to enter into compassionate conversation with those of us who were fortunate to be in his presence during those three days.
The Dalai Lama was not the only religious leader at our dialogue who came with a powerful message to share. Professor Geraldyne Smith of Northern Ireland, for example, also insisted that churches and church leaders need to be open to a more pluralist way of dialogue now and in the future. As more and more groups which previously saw themselves as enemies begin to engage in reconciliation, as is the case in Ireland, there will be more of an existential need to listen carefully to the stories of the other side as well as reminding ourselves of the resources within each of our own traditions for healing and reconciliation.
Rabbi Mordechai Piron, the former Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and now director of the Sapir Educational Center in Jerusalem, when asked to respond to the central challenges we face as religious leaders today, was emphatic in his plea for religious leaders to stake out a new way. His words moved the Dalai Lama deeply. The challenge is very difficult because the situation is catastrophic, he said. In Israel and the Middle East, religions don t work to unify human beings. On the contrary, religions have had the most disastrous influence upon people the worst crimes in history have been done in the name of God! But, he said, there must be a way out of this terrible situation.
Indeed, this was the very reason that we had gathered together for three days of reflection. We had brought religious leaders together from various troubled spots in the world where they all play a constructive role in bringing the best of their religious traditions to bear on resolving complicated conflicts. So we all agreed that there was a way out of these terrible situations, and the way began by dialogue which could lead to reconciliation.
Much of what was done in other parts of the world in this field had its bearing on the situation here in Israel and Palestine. One of the local Christian leaders who participated in this dialogue made this very explicit. Bishop Munib Younan, who is the relatively new Palestinian bishop of the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, spoke poignantly of the way out of the conflict in our region: The church, synagogue and mosque must have a prophetic role we have to be ahead of our politicians now is the time for reconciliation we have to be catalysts, bridge-builders and in so doing we have to see the otherness of the other now is the time for just peace and reconciliation.
Much of the discussion during the next two days revolved around these questions: Why is it so difficult for religious leaders to intervene constructively in conflict? How can we more effectively be bridge-builders? How can we be catalysts for reconciliation?
These were difficult questions with no easy answers. But those of us who were fortunate to be part of this unique dialogue were able to meet and learn from some people who had engaged creatively and constructively to bring reconciliation to warring sides in some very complex conflicts in this century. We plan to seek ways to keep this dialogue going through e-mail and internet and in ongoing dialogues in various parts of the world, including our region in the months and years ahead.
Dr. Ron Kronish, a rabbi and educator who has lived in Jerusalem for 20 years, serves as the Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.
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