ASIA - Buddhism, Mongolia, and Pope Francis: How Did We Get Here?

Monday, 24 July 2023 dialogue   buddhism   pope francis   local churches   monasticism  

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by Victor Gaetan*

Mongolia established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1992. It is the world's largest landlocked country with a population of just 3.3 million people. According to a 2020 national census, 52 percent of the nation is Buddhist, 41 percent consider themselves "non-religious," 3.2 percent are Muslim, and 1.3 percent are Christian. The Holy Father's upcoming pilgrimage (August 31-September 4) is the culmination of decades of Buddhist-Christian encounter

Ulaanbaatar (Agenzia Fides) - The Holy Father’s upcoming trip to Mongolia is being hailed as a first since no pope has ever visited, yet decades of missionary and diplomatic work laid the ground for this pilgrimage, which will unfold August 31-September 4.

The Buddhist-Christian dimension of the encounter is a crucial reason Pope Francis has prioritized Mongolia. We know he cherishes inter-faith dialogue as an antidote to division and the demonization of opponents practiced by too many politicians.

By tracing three long-term Church efforts to find common ground with Buddhist communities, then to witness how Francis has actively accelerated these trends, we see how missionaries and diplomats are in sync—especially under his leadership. It’s a powerful partnership that will be on display in Mongolia.

Through the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue (DID), Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC), Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique-Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIM-MID); and individual religious who have given their lives to increased understanding, tremendous gains have been made toward building a culture of compassion—the title of an excellent book on the Buddhist-Catholic encounter (Urbaniana University Press, 2020) with a valuable introduction by Georgetown University scholar John Borelli.

Vesak Messages

Sri-Lankan Msgr. Indunil J. Kodithuwakku Kankanamalage is secretary of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue (DID), appointed in 2019, after serving as undersecretary since 2012. He describes himself as “born into inter-religious dialogue” because his mother was brought up in a Buddhist family and became Catholic when she married. His neighbors and classmates included Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians.

“I grew up in a pluralistic culture and this pluralism has shaped my attitudes, my perceptions, my worldview,” he explained. While teaching missiology at Pontifical Urbaniana University, he brought his students to a Buddhist temple in Rome “because students should meet monks.”

Kodithuwakku says inter-religious dialogue is an “evolutionary process.” He credits Second Vatican Council, especially Nostra Aetate, as providing the main impetus and in 1986, Buddhists attended the Assisi Prayer led by Pope John Paul II.

Two 1995 DID initiatives—the first Vesakh message and theological colloquium—signify regular, respectful encounters that build relationships over time.

To mark the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha, April-May’s full moon is a sacred feast day for Buddhists worldwide. Under Cardinal Francis Arinze’s leadership, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (DID today) began marking Vesak by sending greetings addressed to “Buddhist Friends,” through apostolic nuncios in nearly every country. Greetings are translated into local languages and distributed.

Most recently on April 21, DID’s prefect, Cardinal Miguel Angel yuso Guixot and Kodithuwakku sent a Vesak greeting titled "Buddhists and Christians: Healing the Wounded of Humanity Through Karuna and Agape".

Theological Dialogue

The same theme will be explored at the seventh DID-sponsored Buddhist-Christian colloquium being held this November in Bangkok, Thailand at the Maha Chulalongkorn Raja Vidhyalaya University—a Theravada Buddhist university. But event planning is also coordinated by Maha Makut Buddhist University, associated with the Mahayana tradition, so the two most prominent schools of Buddhist thought are both represented.

The first DID-sponsored Buddhist-Christian colloquium was hosted in 1995 by Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order in their Kaohsiung, Taiwan monastery. Three years later, the second colloquium was held in a Benedictine monastery in Bangalore, India.

“We live in a time when tribalism is growing,” observed Kodithuwakku. “In tribal society is you are bonded to your own group. You think only of your own group. Others can exist but they are secondary. Whereas, Pope Francis is promoting a fraternal society – human fraternity.”

“Fraternal society means you try to treat the other as a brother and a sister, it is just the opposite of the tribal society,” the Sri Lankan priest continued. “So religious dialogue, from the beginning, has been promoting fraternal society. Even though I am deeply rooted in religious identity, we try to open ourselves with respect and understanding. It doesn’t mean that we hide our differences, or cancel our differences, differences are there.”

“All religions are not the same. But at the same time, you respect the diversity and based on universal values, you try to make this world a better place,” Kodithuwakku said.

Cardinal Marengo & FABC

A Church leader who speaks highly of the Buddhist-Christian colloquium series is Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar. In an interview at the 2022 FABC meeting, Cardinal Marengo reflected on his participation in the Buddhist-Christian colloquia.

“This has given me a great opportunity to know more about the Buddhist world. I attended the 2015 edition in Bodh Gaya, India, and for me it was really an eye opener to the wider Buddhist work because in Mongolia I knew only the reality of Mongolian Buddhism. The 2015 meeting was more about the Theravada tradition,” the cardinal said.

He continued, “Then in 2017 in Taipei, Taiwan [at the Ling Jiou Buddhist Monastery], again, it was a fruitful initiative. I asked the organizers to invite one Buddhist monk from Mongolia because they had not participated. So, it was also an experience of friendship. The monk who attended is a well-known abbot leading a big monastery in Mongolia. These occasions gave me an opportunity to know more about Buddhism in general.” (Buddhism in Mongolia, like Tibet, is more aligned with the Mahayana tradition while Theravada is practiced in Southeast Asia— Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, for example.)

FABC has its own history of advancing with the majority faith in Asia. At its first plenary assembly in 1974 in Taipei, it took as its guiding principle the image of the Asian Church as a Church of dialogue. Four years later, FABC set up an Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, which sponsored grassroots engagement.

What the FABC understands about Buddhism is beautifully stated in a 1997 document about how the Holy Spirit animates faith:
“For so many centuries, Buddhism has nourished the spiritual life of almost the whole of Asia bearing the fruits of Sympathetic Love, Compassion, Joy, and Peace of Mind in the lives of millions of Asia’s people. As Christians come to share something of the vision and experience of the Buddha as lived out in the lives of the people…what can they perceive but the work of the Spirit which they too have experienced?”

DIM-MID & Extraordinary Individuals

The Benedictine Order formalized exchanges between Christian and Buddhist monks in the 1960s and 1970s. The secretariat Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique-Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIM-MID) even features a logo incorporating a Christian cross and the Zen enso.
(DIMMID is a commission of the Benedictine Confederation with formal links to both branches of the Cistercian order.)

At least 15 exchanges over the last 30 years brought Buddhist monks for extended stays in Christian monastic communities and vice versa.

Venerable Phra Dr. Anil Sakya is a Buddhist scholar and assistant abbot at the royal monastery of Wat Bovoranives Vihara in Bangkok, Thailand where I met him.

Sakya was born in Nepal in 1960, then sent by his father, a Buddhist priest, to study in Thailand at age 14. He was the first monk to receive a scholarship from the Thai king to study social anthropology at Cambridge University in the UK where he was the only Buddhist monk at the school—and possibly in the town.

"I was an alien everywhere I went," said the thoughtful Phra Sakya.

Since then, he has moved fluidly between countries and traditions. He calmly and lyrically describes how he has worked closely with the Thai Supreme Patriarch, met Pope Francis when the Holy Father was in Thailand, and attended a sustainable development conference at the Holy See.

“There is an openness to learn about the dharma among Catholic priests I’ve met,” explained the monk. “This openness is reciprocated by Buddhists. We’ve had many wonderful encounters.”

Pope Francis & Fraternity

It was a Buddhist monk who was the first to congratulate Bishop Marengo on his selection to the College of Cardinals in 2022.

“I was in Italy and went to Sunday Mass with two Mongolian Catholic priests who were traveling with me, together with a Buddhist monk,” recounted Marengo.

“Then we went to visit a community of Consolata Missionary sisters outside Rome. We had a nice meeting. Meanwhile, the announcement [about the new cardinals] was given at the Angelus. We got the news only after. And the Buddhist abbot was the first to congratulate me for the appointment!” he said.

He continued, “It was, of course, a great surprise for me, but we know how important interreligious dialogue is for Pope Francis.”

Indeed, the pope’s visit to Mongolia is the culmination of almost 60 years of increasing fraternity with our Buddhist brothers and sisters.

As DID prefect Cardinal Miguel Ayuso Guixot writes, “Accompanied by Pope Francis’s dialogue of fraternity and respect, Buddhists and Christians across the world have been able to find creative ways to share the joys and mysteries of life together and to cooperate for the common good for all, and the survival of our common home.” (Agenzia Fides, 24/7/2023)

*Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues. He also writes for Foreign Affairs magazine and contributed to Catholic News Service. The Catholic Press Association of North America has given his articles four first place awards, including Individual Excellence. Gaetan received a license (B.A.) in Ottoman and Byzantine Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris, an M.A. from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, and a Ph.D. in Ideology in Literature from Tufts University. His book God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) comes out in paperback in July. Visit his website at