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Ask an Apostle: Can I go to a Buddhist prayer service?

John Christman, S.S.S. answers your questions this month.
Catholic Voices

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Q: My friend wants to take me to a Buddhist prayer service. Is it OK to go?

—Interfaith Inquirer

A: There’s a saying that I’ve heard: “You don’t really know your own country until you’ve traveled to another country.” I think there’s some truth to this. Once you have actually spent some time in a different country, not just superficially passing through, seeing the sights and eating different foods, then you begin to see your own values and beliefs in a new way. This requires investing some time in getting to know people in that other country and learning their values, habits, and traditions. It can also require some reading about the history of that country. It all bears fruit in discovering differences and similarities, some very life giving. I think this same lesson applies well to other religions. You don’t really understand your own faith tradition until you’ve experienced another faith tradition.

The church, especially since the Second Vatican Council, has worked to build positive relationships with members of other faith traditions and religions. There is much to be learned and many valuable insights to be gained from other religions. However, this isn’t to be done superficially like a tourist just looking for novel sights and good food. Instead, when we enter another religious context, we are aware that we are being welcomed as guests into someone else’s home.

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Your friend is inviting you to a Buddhist prayer service. I don’t know if this means your friend is a Buddhist or is simply curious about going to a Buddhist prayer service. Whatever the case, it appears there’s an opportunity to have a deeper conversation about religion, faith, and how they shape your lives. If done in an appreciative manner, this can be a very positive experience.

Your question, “Is it OK to go?” makes me wonder, do you want to go? If you would like to go, why would you like to go? These are important questions to answer for yourself. Studying other religions can be fascinating. Seeing how those religions are lived out in practice brings another level of insight and places everything in the realm of experience.

If you decide to attend, express any concerns you might have to your friend or to the person who is welcoming you in the Buddhist community. It’s helpful to know ahead of time what to expect and what the rituals and prayers signify. Once you know these things you can also share ahead of time what aspects that you can participate in which are in keeping with your own faith tradition. You can also voice what aspects you would not be comfortable participating in because either they do not harmonize with your faith beliefs or you simply aren’t quite ready for yet. In those situations, they may be comfortable with you being present but not actively participating.

It’s also important to process the experience afterward. Set aside time after the prayer service to have a conversation with your friend about what you experienced. This is an opportunity to ask questions and share perceptions. If it’s done in an open and non-judgmental way, it can be very enlightening. Experiences like these are often just the tip of the iceberg in learning not only another faith tradition but seeing your own in a much deeper way, perhaps allowing you to see things you’ve not noticed before.


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