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Sitting in the Heart of the World

by Ellen Grace O’Brian
Vice-Chair, CPWR Board of Trustees

As a practitioner of yoga, I was aware of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as the watershed interreligious event that opened the door to yoga in the West through Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic presence at the first convening in 1893. What I didn’t know was that beginning in 1993, this powerful global event was now occurring approximately every five years and was open to everyone with an interest in the interreligious movement. Although I had heard about the Parliaments in Chicago (1993) and South Africa (1999), it wasn’t clear to me how to participate and that it was something that could so profoundly affect my life and my community.

Curiosity has a way of helping us discover doorways that we didn’t know existed. In 2002, I learned about a local group of people meeting in someone’s home to talk about the next Parliament event slated to convene in Barcelona in 2004. Between homemade soup, networking, and sharing about why we thought it could make a difference to bring people together, I found myself on the path to the fourth global parliament event. This local connection with people who had been to other parliaments, and those who, like me, were just learning about it, was invaluable. It provided inspiration as well as information. Little did I know I was already engaged in one of the hallmarks of the Parliament: bringing people together in ways that empower and equip them to solve the problems we face in our world today.

When I checked in at my first Parliament in Barcelona, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of programs and events, the sight of so many people from different religious traditions and far reaches of the globe engaging in dialog, and the inspiration that pervaded everything from the meeting place to the program book. After a time of prayerful consideration about what I should chose amidst such rich opportunity, I dove in. One of the things I decided to participate in was a dialog with others who were concerned about the rise of religiously motivated violence in our world.

The dialog group I was assigned to included a Hindu man from India; a Muslim woman from Egypt, a Christian seminary student from the US, a Catholic woman from Rome, and a Lutheran man from Switzerland. We were provided with some questions to reflect upon and discuss. Why was this issue important to us? What in our own experience had contributed to why we cared about violence in our world? What could we see ourselves doing we returned home to our own communities that would make a difference?

As I sat with this group of people from religions, countries, and viewpoints different from mine, something became apparent that changed everything for me: we all shared a deep concern about this issue and a belief, grounded in our diverse traditions, that peaceful change was possible. The experience of connection across differences was profound, I felt like I was sitting in the heart of the world. We were inspired to return home and engage in action. Then it came to me. I live in a large, diverse, metropolitan area. I realized that if people who were concerned about the rise of violence in our own community gathered together, that group would look very much like the one I was with in distant Barcelona. And, with a similar rich diversity, we could find ways together to begin to solve this problem.

When I returned home with this inspiration from the Parliament, I reached out and was joined by leaders from different faith communities, educational institutions, government and nonprofit organizations, students and community members who met to convene a community nonviolence conference. Inspired by the Parliament model, hundreds of people have attended these conferences over the years and brought forth their own commitments to action.

Whenever I think about what the Parliament does, or what it means to attend such a global gathering, I remember my experience of sitting in the heart of the world. And I think about what happens when people come together and share their deepest concerns and aspirations for a peaceful world.

Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian is the Spiritual Director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, a ministry in the tradition of Kriya Yoga. She was ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. She is the author of several books on spiritual practice and is the editor of the quarterly magazine, Enlightenment Journal.

Rev. O’Brian is the Founder of Meru Seminary, training leaders in the Kriya Yoga tradition, as well as Founder and Chair of the community nonprofit educational organization, Carry the Vision, which provides educational programs in nonviolence. She received the 2008 Human Relations Award from the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations recognizing her contribution to positive human relations and peace in Santa Clara County. She serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Association for Global New Thought; on the Executive Board of the International New Thought Alliance; and as Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Acknowledging Our Theological Need for Each Other

by Anantanand Rambachan
CPWR Trustee

Our world has always been characterized by religious diversity, both across and within religious traditions. We have held different beliefs about the absolute, described it differently, and adopted a variety of ways and practices for attaining life’s ultimate goal. What is new about our religious diversity is the fact that it is rapidly becoming a feature of the landscape of many societies where a single tradition was predominant. Our awareness of other religions has never been as great as it is today. We are growing also in the realization, some more slowly than others, that this diversity is here to stay. The world’s religions have emerged from colonialism with a renewed sense of purpose and universal relevance.

We understand better today, our political need for each other in the light of the interdependent character of our lives. All of our religious traditions, in addition to what they proclaim and teach about individual human destiny and fulfillment, also imagine and include a social vision of the ideal human community characterized by justice, peace, and prosperity. Any religious tradition which is today concerned about the social order and its transformation is challenged to reach across historical frontiers, find common values with people of other faiths and strive together to overcome human suffering. Our hopes for just and peaceful communities will only be realized together or not at all.

Less clear, however, is our understanding of the theological need for each other. Our traditions generally understand themselves as theologically self-sufficient and independent and with little or no need for a religious ‘other.’ Our relationships with people of other traditions have not always been informed by theological humility and gratitude. If meaningful human relationships, however, are nurtured in the gratitude of humility and in recognition of the need for an ‘other,’ then our articulation of the theological value of persons of other traditions becomes important. Where do we discern our need for the religious ‘other’ that urges us to seek relationships? Where do I locate my religious need for you? What is my value to you theologically? Are we convinced, at the core of our traditions, of our need for each other? It seems to me that our focus today is on articulating the political dimension of interreligious relationships with much less focus on the theological in this sense. Although there may be urgent contemporary challenges that explain this choice, I want to make a plea for deeper reflection on our theological need for people of other faiths.

The political significance of people of other faiths is not an argument made only by religions and those who observe them. Many have articulated powerfully the pragmatic value of building relationships and of cooperating with people of other faiths. There is also a transient character to such arguments, dependent as these are on the exigencies of the moment. The political arguments needs to be enriched by and grounded in our more profound and enduring self-understanding of our theological needs.

In my own case, as a Hindu, my most profound theological need for my neighbor of another faith arises from my tradition’s teaching that Truth (brahman/sat) is always more than we could define, describe or comprehend with finite words and minds. As the Taittiriya Upanisad (2.9.1) reminds us, brahman is “that from which words turn back with the mind.” The constitutive nature of brahman eludes all direct definition. The consequence of such a radical sense of our human limits ought to be deep attentiveness and openness to considering and learning from multiple ways of speaking about the ultimate that occur in different traditions. It is the wise, after all, as Rg Veda (I.164.46) reminds us who speak differently (“The One Being the Wise speak of in many ways”). By attributing differences of speech to the wise, this text invites a respectful and inquiring response to theological differences. We must not associate wisdom only with our way of speaking, as precious as this must be to us. The possibility for mutual theological enrichment, learning, and sharing is a significant justification for entering into interreligious relationships.

If our theologies cannot limit the limitless, we need each other, and we can all learn and be enriched by the ways in which others have apprehended the absolute and by the values they have derived from such encounters and experiences. This is, for me, the most compelling ground to seek out my neighbor of a different faith. My own religious life as a Hindu has been and continues to be immensely enriched and stirred by my encounters with practitioners of other traditions. I benefit immeasurably from the opportunity to converse and interact with fellow pilgrims. We need each other to help us see and understand ourselves better and to deepen out religious lives. Without the voice of the other, the human proclivity toward self-centeredness and self-righteousness may go unchallenged and arrogance and selfishness, rather than humility and compassion, may become the dominant values of our existence. We should not be hesitant to acknowledge this.

Dilatato Corde, An Expanded Heart: A New Online Journal of Interreligious Spirituality

Trustee CornerBy Leo Lefebure
CPWR Trustee

Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique/Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIM/MID) recently launched a new online journal dedicated to exploring interreligious dialogue concerning spirituality and religious experience. The multi-language journal provides a forum for interreligious exchanges concerning prayer and contemplation, spiritual experience, and the spirituality of interreligious dialogue, including contemporary personal testimonies as well as academic and historical studies. The new journal takes its name from a phrase in the prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which invites readers to follow the path of God’s commandments “with an expanded heart.”

Dilatato Corde, as the journal is known, appears twice a year free of charge at In the Foreword of the second issue, dated July 1, 2011, editor-in-chief Pierre-Francois de Bethune, OSB, considers the significance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, convoked by Pope John Paul II at Assisi in 1986 and also of the upcoming gathering in Assisi next October. De Bethune recalls a comment made to him in 1986 by a Zoroastrian participant, Homi Dhalla: “From now on I will not be able to pray as before; I will always be in communion with all those who pray.”

A number of essays share personal experiences of transformation in dialogue. For example, a moving testimony from Lucy Brydon, OSB, describes the “enlarging of the heart” through her interreligious experiences of many decades, ranging from living with Muslims in Africa to a transformative encounter with Theravada Buddhists, to her current work in Buddhist-Christian retreats focusing on mindfulness. In another personal testimony, Mary John Marshall, OSB, shares the intersections of her Christian monastic journey with the path of her late natural sister, Maylie Scott, who was a Zen Buddhist priest; the essay includes a reflection that Maylie Scott wrote in 1998.

Some authors consider the meaning of another religion’s perspectives for their own practice. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Apostolic Nuncio to the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Delegate to the League of Arab States, reflects on the significance for Christians of Muslim veneration of the Ninety-nine Most Beautiful Names of God. Fitzgerald notes texts from the Qur’an and the Bible that may be conducive to prayer, exploring both the Qur’anic context of the Beautiful Names of God and analogies in the Hebrew Bible, and then offering a Christian reflection in light of the New Testament. Richard Zeikowitz ponders the significance of the teachings of the Rule of Saint Benedict in light of his personal experiences of Tibetan Buddhist and Christian monasticism.

DIM/MID is an international organization of Catholic monastics involved in dialogue with the spiritual and monastic traditions of the world’s religions. For more than half a century, Catholic monastics have been pioneering and developing new forms of spiritual encounter and interreligious dialogue with monastics and practitioners of other religious traditions. In North America, Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) coordinates the work of these monastic communities in relation to other traditions; Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique carries on this work in Europe and beyond. Since 1994, these and other comparable monastic initiatives around the world are united under the leadership of the General Secretariat, which was established by the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines in consultation and cooperation with the Abbot General of the Cistercians. William Skudlarek, O.S.B., a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, serves as the General Secretary of DIM/MID and is associate editor of Dilatato Corde.

The Journey of a Lifetime

by Mohammad A. Siddiqi, Ph. D.

Looking back at my childhood days spent in Gorakhpur, India (a northeastern Indian town only 50 miles south of Nepal borders), I can say now that I joined an interfaith group when I was in fourth grade.  We established a children’s club, the Bal Sangh Club or simply the Children’s Club.  There were a few Muslims, plenty of Hindus, only one Christian, and two Buddhists—about  40 of us between the ages of 9 and 14.

Besides playing soccer, badminton, cricket, and volleyball, we regularly wrote, produced, and staged plays that reflected themes of communal harmony and promoted interfaith understanding.  During these plays our parents and elders from the community came together at the auditorium of Arya Samaj Sansthaan (an organization run by the followers of Swami Vivekananda).  Some of us were very devout Muslims, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists, but all of us were very close to each other.   We had a sort of parliament with a president, prime minister, speaker, finance minister, and so on.  It was a wonderful fantasy that we enjoyed until everyone moved somewhere else after graduating from high school.

Then, after a long time, I attended the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago and then the other one in Cape Town.  In between, I had the privilege of being among the founding members and a trustee of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations, the WCMIR, that was established at an international meeting of more than 100 Muslims gathered in Leicester, U. K. in June of 2001.  And finally, now I am a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions.

To me this is the  journey of my life.  I am still zigzagging my way along.  I have visited many mosques, temples, synagogues, cathedrals, ashrams, and holy sites in more than forty countries of the world.  Each of these places has taught me something that has elevated both my thought and action. This journey has taught me the humanness that we all share and possess.  I value it the most in my life.  As children of Adam and Eve, I feel connected to everyone in this world in one way or the other.  The Parliament has reinforced and strengthened my idea of a huge human family on this globe.  As an individual I try to create a comfortable space between myself and anyone whom I know.  This does not mean giving up my faith; this only means strengthening the relationship among ourselves and eliminating the feeling of ‘otherness.’  Others are aliens; they do not live on this earth.  We do not even know about those ‘others.’

My aspirations and dreams are to work through CPWR and every other forum that provides me with the opportunity of bringing people closer together, to create a more just, peaceful and better world.  I hope that we, the trustees, find more time at our meetings to develop plans and  take action to help make this world a safer and better place for all.

Dr. Mohammad Ahmadullah Siddiqi is professor and director of Journalism Program at Western Illinois University where he has been teaching since 1987.  He has also served as chair of the Department of English and Journalism and has been honored with numerous awards for excellence in teaching and outstanding research contributions.
Professor Siddiqi has published three books, numerous chapters in books and many articles in refereed journals.  He serves on the editorial advisory boards of the Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, UK, Journal of Media Studies, Pakistan, and Journal of the Global Communication Research Association.  Professor Siddiqi is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, life member of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), member, Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions (CPWR), and member as well as the treasurer of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations (WCMIR).  He has lectured and conducted media workshops, delivered keynote addresses, and presented papers in ISNA, ICNA, AMSS, and AMSE. He has travelled to most European countries, most nations in the Middle East, almost all of the countries in Asia, and about half dozen countries in Africa.


June 28th, 2011 at 12:30 pm

My Story, by Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia

Tarunjit Singh Butalia

Tarunjit Singh Butalia

by Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia
CPWR Trustee

While growing up as a kid in northern India in the early 1980s, I fondly remember one of my best friends in high school, Sher Ali Khan. He was a devout Muslim.

While in 9th grade, Sher Ali called me over to his home for the Islamic festival of Eid. The food at the table was overflowing and beautifully decorated. But a dilemma faced me soon. All the meat on the table was halal – a special religious technique of preparation of meat in the Islamic faith that I as a Sikh was forbidden to eat, due to the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Principles of Sikh Living). So I chose to stay a silent vegetarian that day partaking only of vegetables and sweets.

A couple of months later, he was over at our home for dinner and we had cooked meat without any religious preparation. Since the meat was not halal, Sher Ali became a vegetarian for that meal.

At that time I thought that our religions were getting in the way of our friendship. But as I reflect on it now, it seems that we were learning how to negotiate our religious differences.

In 1989, I came to the United States to pursue my Ph.D. degree at The Ohio State University. I was at least an ocean and continent away from my parents and family.

The first question I asked myself was “do I even want to continue being religious?” After significant introspection, the answer became clear: yes, I wanted to be religious. But this was followed by another question: “what religious tradition should I be a part of?”

I remember approaching a local member of the Catholic clergy asking for his advice on what religious path to consider pursuing. His response surprised me. He asked me to look deeply into the faith I had grown up in and asked me to come back to him after giving my faith one more chance.

As you may have guessed by now, I never went back to that priest. But I am indebted to him for his advice. Here was someone from another religious tradition that helped me to grow in my own religious tradition. His advice on spirituality transcended the boundaries of religion.

Today, as I reflect on my friendship with my Muslim high school friend and the Catholic spiritual adviser, it is clear to me that the many diverse religions of the world are complimentary to each other and not in competition with each other. These are values upon which the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions is built upon.

Mutual respect and understanding across religious boundaries is a fundamental need of humanity today. The interfaith and inter-religious movements are at a critical juncture. How do we expand the circle of those engaged in this work, and how do we deepen the engagement of those already involved? These are the issues that the Parliament helps to address so we can make this world a safer and more just place for our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia is the Secretary General of the World Sikh Council – America Region, Moderator of Religions for Peace – USA, board member of North American Interfaith Network, member of Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, member of Board of Trustees of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, and a member of the Board of Scholars and Practitioners of The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He also serves as the President of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio.

Lessons from My Journey

Trustee Cornerby Helen Spector, CPWR Trustee

When Rev. Dr. David Ramage recruited me in 1990 to serve on the Board of Trustees leading up to the 1993 Parliament, I was not engaged in or much aware of the inter-religious movement.

My commitment to the Council’s work caught fire when I joined a group of Trustees to travel to Cape Town in 1998, to meet with our organizing counterparts and talk with leaders from all the faith communities who would support the Parliament in 1999 in Cape Town.  From that visit and my work since, I have come to see clearly the power of the interfaith experience and the positive impact of Council’s community organizing approach.

During our visit, we each were asked to meet individually with leaders from different faith traditions. Although I am Jewish, I had done considerable consulting with the Episcopal Church in the United States, so I visited with the Dean of St. George’s Cathedral.  He spoke with great energy about the glory days of interfaith in Cape Town during the struggle to overthrow apartheid, when every few weeks, leaders from all faith communities would meet to map the next steps in their powerful strategy of standing and marching forward together.

When he had finished his story, it seemed that a great sadness overwhelmed him, and he sat quietly for a few moments. I asked him what he hoped would come from organizing and holding the Cape Town Parliament, and he said in a very quiet voice, “Since our victory in overcoming apartheid, we have not met again. I hope that we will find a way to come together again as leaders of faith and share our hopes for rebuilding our country.”

In the years since that meeting, I have had the opportunity to witness the formation of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, which just observed its 10th anniversary on May 10, 2010.  Gordon Oliver, CTII Chairman, credits the Parliament event as the organizing impetus for this vibrant and growing local inter-religious movement.

More recently, Dr. Gary Bouma, Chair of the Board of Management in Melbourne, has shared with us that “before PWR 2009, 3 or 4 cities in Melbourne (which is itself divided into over 20 separate cities with their own mayors, councils and local responsibilities) had interfaith councils; now all but one do. This is a HUGE result!”

While these stories show what tangible results look like when local communities get inspired and connected, I learned something else in Cape Town, something perhaps even more important about our work of interfaith.

In the lead up to the 1999 Parliament event, The Cape Times daily newspaper sponsored a 13-week special section—“One City, Many Faiths.”   Monday through Friday, the paper carried four full pages of stories and information about five different faith traditions—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and African Independent traditions—which have significant populations in the city.  The publisher organized discussion groups, luncheon meetings of leaders, and interviews with people on the street to keep this initiative highly visible and energized.

After the Cape Town Parliament was over, I talked with the publisher, asking him what results he had seen from this massive initiative. “None,” he said. I was stunned. This was a huge investment of energy and resources! What did he mean he hadn’t seen any results?!

Then he told me the lesson that we all must remember: “We cannot tell you what the results are, because we have no way to count the number of hate crimes, attacks and killings that did not happen because someone walking on the street no longer saw a person who dresses differently or worships differently as someone to be feared.

The world is full of stories like these that we will never hear. Yet we know that the inter-religious movement helps us to see each other as people with whom we share human experiences, even while we know we differ on how we worship and what we believe.

Mrs. Helen Spector joined the Board of CPWR in 1990 to help plan the 1993 Parliament Centenary Celebration. As a professional facilitator and Organizational Development consultant, Mrs. Spector has used her skills to further the values and goals of CPWR. She served as co—chair for the Site Selection task forces for the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Parliament events. She now lives in Portland, Oregon and continues as a Trustee of the Council.