What does it mean to be an Asian Jesuit? This was what 15 scholastics strove to understand better during the nearly month-long East Asia Theological Encounter Program (EATEP) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
As Fr John Shea SJ, former EATEP Director, said in his introduction on the first day, the EATEP guides young Jesuits in exploring the meaning of inculturation and the position of the Church and Society regarding this, gaining an understanding of Buddhism in this context, and through this, understanding what it is to be an Asian Jesuit.
This is important for the Jesuits in Asia Pacific where Christians are a minority in most of the countries, which include the world’s largest Muslim country and several Buddhist majority countries. GC 34 recognised this: “Jesuits in Asia and Oceania… especially in Asian countries where Christians are a small minority, they dialogue with other cultural and religious traditions in an effort to put the Gospel in touch with Asian life and to bring the richness of Asian culture to the living of the Gospel.” (GC 34 Decree 2 N.2).
Through EATEP and a similar programme focussed on Islam, the Asia Pacific Theological Encounter Programme (APTEP), the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific also hopes to form a community to continue this important work of inter-religious dialogue in the future.
The participants for this year’s EATEP, held from July 3 to 29, came from Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and China. The programme was as usual: an intensive 10-day course on Asian contextual theology with Fr Michael Amaladoss SJ, Director of the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions in Chennai, India, followed by a week of Buddhist meditation at Wat Tam Doi Tone. The participants also spent two weekends visiting Jesuit apostolates and Buddhist sites in Northern Thailand.
“A living theology can only be a contextual theology in a particular context of life,” said Fr Amaladoss who presented many Asian theology themes, such as the Asian Jesus, Jesus the ancestor, the cosmic Christ, The Mahayana Christ, liberation in Asia and Asian spirituality. “In the context of Asia, which is marked by poverty and the richness of cultures and religions, doing theology means doing dialogue with other cultures and religions.”
One difference between this year’s programme and previous EATEP was the use of spiritual conversations. EATEP Director and JCAP Secretary of Buddhist Studies and Dialogue Fr In-gun Kang SJ had the participants do three rounds of spiritual conversations every morning after the second session. This further enriched the participants’ experience and learning, and helped them form what will, by God’s grace, become deep friendships.
“From our Buddhist friends, we learn that emptying our mind does not mean to have ‘nothing’ inside but to fill it with ‘something’ greater than our ordinary desires; that is, compassion and wisdom,” said Fr Kang.
The five days of Vipassana meditation were a deep encounter with the Buddhist tradition for the participants. Besides the hours of meditation, the master monk also gave a one-hour talk every evening. He emphasised that “by living in the present moment with mindful awareness, we can build a profound inner peace within our hearts and bring the same peace to the world”.
Indonesian Scholastic Leo Perkasa Tanjung SJ shared that encountering Buddhists by visiting temples and doing Vipassana meditation “helped me so much to understand theology not only on a theoretical level, but also concretely as it relates to real life”.
Scholastic Phùng Mạnh Vĩnh Nghi SJ said that EATEP awakened him to correct whatever prejudices he had with other religions. “I still feel that there is a gap between my faith and my commitment, and a hesitation toward dialogue with other religions,” he shared. “EATEP helped me fill this gap by giving me the chance to reflect on my own faith and the way I should integrate it with my commitment.
“When we commit ourselves deeply in the service of God and man, we will be drawn closer to the faithful of other religions and there will be no arguing about my God or their gods, but all will feel like being united in the Holy and Divine One.”