The Interreligious Dialogue in Thailand, a Buddhist country of 67 million people, with only 379,000 Catholics, is the fruit of a long lasting relationship between the Focolare on the part of the Catholic Church, and our Buddhist brothers and sisters, since the beginning when the first Focolare Center opened in Bangkok in March 1981.
Over the past 35 years, the presence of our Buddhist friends in the Focolare’s local meetings and bigger gatherings has grown steadily. Among the monks who are close to us, we have to make special mention of Grand Master Ajahn Thong, a famous Master of Vipassana meditation in northern Thailand. When he travelled to Italy in 1995, he remained so impressed by Chiara and the Movement she founded that he invited her to visit Thailand to reciprocate the kindness and goodness he had experienced there. In 1997, Ajahn Thong presented Chiara to other Buddhists monks in his Temple with these words “We are gathered here today to know the thoughts of mother Chiara… When someone turns on a light while we are in the dark, you don’t ask who that person is, whether this person is a man or a woman, a child or an adult, or whether this person is here to show us the right way. Chiara has discovered a light and she is here to give us the light she found.”
After her trip to Thailand, Chiara opened two focolare centers in Chiang Mai in order to continue the dialogue with our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Soon after, Chiara started a series of symposia with several Buddhists who were friends of the Movement and who came from different countries. In 2010, the fourth such symposium was hosted in Chiang Mai by Ajahn Thong in his temple, with the participation of more than 200 attendees coming from many parts of the world. On that occasion, Maria Voce (Emmaus), the new Focolare President who succeeded Chiara, delivered the keynote address on suffering, which for us Catholics is personified by the Crucified and Forsaken Jesus.
This interfaith dialogue, over the years, has grown and developed into a deep friendship –as both Christians and Buddhists support and encourage each other in times of need: bearing sufferings together, and celebrating one another’s joys. Below are several experiences from Thailand:
Duangkamol Aemavat “Sole”
I have established a nursery school with 150 kids and 13 teachers. Most of the students and teachers are Buddhists, Catholics, and Seventh-day Adventists. Living the Ideal of unity urges me to look after the needs of people with different beliefs.
Since we have different religious practices, we realized that some teachers can’t eat pork and seafood. As the school provides lunch for all, we decided to talk about it with all the teachers. We came up with the idea of establishing a new lunch menu which is good for all. This solution is also a great help for the cook as she will have to prepare only one menu for all, instead of different dishes.
The school sometimes organizes an evaluation meeting for all teachers in order to examine in depth the children’s development plan, and this always falls on a Saturday. However, 7th day Adventist teachers cannot skip their all day religious functions on Saturdays, while all the other teachers have Sundays to dedicate to their families and religious functions. After consultations, we agreed to hold the meeting on Sunday and the Catholics made arrangements to go to Mass on Saturday or else on Sunday evenings.
In this way, everybody was happy and the atmosphere at work remains peaceful and productive.
In my job as a factory manager, I usually start the day by meeting the workers, mostly Buddhists, and asking them about their families. Many of the workers come from Myanmar and Cambodia but these 2 groups do not mingle with one another. I tried to be a bridge between these two groups of workers and the factory owner so that they would feel happy and work well.
One suggestion I made to the owner was that of providing health care to the workers, and also, dinner for those who had to work overtime. He agreed and offered these benefits. Later, many workers commented that they never had this kind of work atmosphere before.
Another occasion came with the birthday of the mother of this factory owner. I proposed doing something for her so all the workers came and sang happy birthday to her in their own languages. She was quite happy and surprised. Now, whenever there are special occasions, she presents the workers with gifts, which are useful for them. These experiences help us create a family atmosphere in the factory, no matter what nationality or religion we belong to.
Preeyanoot Surinkaew “Metta”
Last year, I and my one year old son moved from Chiang Rai, in Northern Thailand, to live with my husband who works as a university professor there. At first, I was worried, because my husband lives in a small room, which would not have been suitable for our baby as his health was still a bit delicate.
My friends from the Focolare Movement informed me that there was a parish priest nearby who was close to the Movement. My family and I are Buddhists. When we went to meet the priest, he was very friendly and gave us many useful suggestions, as we are new to the place. For instance, one time he came with the handy man to fix our room. The handy man was so amazed that this priest paid special attention to our needs. Before going away, the priest even informed us that there was a Christian community near us, so that if ever we needed help, we could always reach out to them. In fact, we discovered that the one who delivers drinking water to our area is also a Christian from that community.
One day, I brought my son’s clothes to one of them for mending, and they gave me a special discount. Another time, we were looking for a contractor to build a house on our land and the priest introduced us to a Buddhist contractor who works in his parish too.
Our family has been welcomed by a great love, which we found in the village. This love binds us together even though we did not know each other before and in fact, we also belong to different religions.