Dharma Contemplation for Interfaith Dialogue

This spring, with the help of friend and co-conspirator the Reverend Liz Stout, I led a series of interfaith dialogues using the structure or protocol of Greg Kramer’s Dharma Contemplation. We read texts from a variety of world religions. Thanks to Liz’ good efforts, this series of five Monday evenings was sponsored by Evanston Interfaith Action and hosted by the Unitarian Church of Evanston.

The learning potential of this was amplified for me because, during the same time frame, I also led a series on Tuesday evenings using the same approach to read suttas with (mostly) experienced meditators.

The interfaith dialogue group was announced to the email list of Evanston Interfaith Action and to some of its constituent congregations. Twenty-six people registered, but only seventeen appeared on the first night—including three or four who had not registered.

No aspect of the practice, or of our skill in leading it, can account for the 35% loss between registration and the first session. It seems that some of those who signed up just weren’t expecting to take the offering seriously. Perhaps a more formal registration process (through a web service like EventBright), or a nominal charge, might have led to a more stable group. Stability seems desirable to help participants learn the practice and to feel comfortable enough that they can learn from each other. (But perhaps group stability is not essential; an alternative would be to accept the fact of anicca [change] and offer a drop-in group.)

Issues of Describing a Complex and Unexpected Practice

Attendance at remaining sessions also declined, however: from seventeen to eight, six, four, and four. Thus, in contrast to the series last fall and the concurrent series on Tuesdays (both of which saw high attendance and zero attrition), this series was not, numerically, a wild success. It is some comfort that the little group that finished out seemed to like the practice.

I had the impression on the first night that people were encountering something radically different from what they had expected. Their expectations were formed, in part, by the announcement they responded to—could that be the problem? Liz drafted the announcement, which seems to me like a good one. I can’t find anything essential that it lacks:

A four-phase process for contemplating sacred texts will be taught and practiced: beginning in silence; becoming mindful of words and phrases; emotions; meanings; ending in dialogue. Examples come from Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Taoist, Hindu, Baha’i, or other sources. In the spirit of quiet brainstorming, no response will be set apart as incorrect. Wisdom emerges from the texts, from ourselves, and from each other. Participants are encouraged to attend all sessions.

Participant expectations were, of course, also formed from a larger set of cultural influences and assumptions; even if mis-matched expectations were the problem, the announcement may not have been their source. Dharma Contemplation is significantly different from anything most folks have experienced; as a result, fostering appropriate expectations is tricky. I don’t know how to make clearer what the practice is like—especially in a brief format suitable for reprinting in congregational bulletins or newsletters. (Suggestions gladly accepted!)

Adaptations for Interfaith Dialogue

I somewhat simplified the descriptions of the phases (reading handouts available when I get time). In my spoken instructions, I put less emphasis on watching the mind and more emphasis on meeting the text and meeting each other. I was surprised and intrigued to discover that several participants readily engaged the practice in its meditative aspects anyway: that is, they were using the structure of the practice, the reading, and the interaction with each other as contexts to watch what was happening in their own minds. And this was true despite the varied backgrounds of participants, the diversity of texts, and Liz’ and my differences in facilitation styles. It makes me think there really is something in the structure of Dharma Contemplation that supports meditative engagement. (The engagement of folks in Dharma Contemplation sessions during Insight Dialogue retreats—while often a stronger engagement—is not such strong evidence of this practice’s potential because that engagement is influenced by the commitment and understandings of participants and by the meditative mind states they have developed earlier in the retreat.)

Co-facilitator Liz and I have talked about possibly making a short pamphlet that would help people use this method for Interfaith Dialogue. This is not my principle interest in the method, but it seems like it might be a good thing for many people. The only downside I can see to this—besides the work involved—is what to call it: “Dharma Contemplation” is a totally weird name for an Interfaith Dialogue method!

This effort was part of a larger experiment. See also:
Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: Initial Planning
First Dharma Contemplation Series: Fall 2012
Reading the Suttas With Dharma Contemplation: Spring 2013

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