On Friday 15 November 2019, the Maltese Association for the Study of Spirituality and Spiritual Companionship (MASC), held its first open public event, a Buddhist-Christian dialogue entitled Philosophical Interpretation and Daily Life in the Way of Chinese Zen Buddhism.
The MASC is a newly founded association of alumni of the M.A. in Spirituality and M.A. in Spiritual Companionship programmes offered by the Faculty of Theology.
The evening's lecture, with its hands-on experience, was led by the venerable Abbess Miao Duo. Buddhist Abbess Miao Duo is Superintendent of FoGuang Shan France, where FoGuang Shan Europe is headquartered. Following the projection of a short film to demonstrate 'The Art of One Stroke Calligraphy', the Abbess introduced the 'art' of calligraphy that virtually 'writes itself' without awareness, 'in a single stroke'.
MASC Vice-Chairperson, Mr Martin Azzopardi SDC then introduced the Abbess and the event to the audience. Mr Azzopardi described the cultural and spiritual context of Buddhist thought that makes Buddhist-Christian dialogue possible. He compared and distinguished the Buddha and the Christ; the existing commonalities suggest how Thomas Merton, as a Christian, could say that he also wanted "to become as good a Buddhist as I can." In that Christian and contemplative setting, Rev. Dr Charlò Camilleri, OCarm, Prior of the Carmelite Priory in Mdina and representative of the Faculty of Theology to MASC, blessed and welcomed the participants by offering the Prayer of Saint Francis with the Bodhisattva Vow, which the group in their Christian example completed with the Lord’s Prayer.
The venerable Abbess then led the assembly, that had been placed around tables of nine or ten persons each, into the practice of mindfulness. This focused-awareness exercise of being-present combines relaxation with an attentive mental focus to one’s bodily and sensory experience. After the initial effort to put aside all that was extraneous to the moment, the Abbess conducted the 'Tea Ceremony' for nearly seventy participants, who at each table followed their respective 'Tea Masters' in the ceremony of the preparation and consumption of tea. This process allowed for the conscious discrimination and differentiation of various sensory experiences. As the participants simultaneously sharpened and broadened their attention to various sensations, elements of that conscious experience became even more focused and more complex, so that sometimes, spontaneous, or even very unexpected, sensations were favoured.
The 'Tea Ceremony' was gradually complemented by other elaborate contexts, such as the visual sight and movements of a costumed dancer or the tranquil sound of gentile flutes. The movements of the 'Tea Masters', each in her individual attention and of each participant’s attention to her, provided further discipline to one’s awareness of the reflective space and its nature to open up consciousness to the meditative 'silence' within it.
A conversation followed, with Abbess Miao Duo taking up some engaging questions from Mr Azzopardi. Questions from the audience allowed for the Abbess to elaborate on Buddhist practice and thought. In conclusion, MASC Chairperson, Dr Edward J. Clemmer thanked the Abbess and her team, and offered the audience a specific religious context for the humanity that binds Chinese Buddhist wisdom with the Christian experience of the universal Christ. A reception, featuring vegetarian Buddhist and typical Maltese snacks, was hosted by the Malta China Cultural Centre (MCCC), co-host of the event along with the Carmelite Institute Malta.
In the preparations leading to the event, MASC Vice-Chairperson Mr Martin Azzopardi served as intermediary between MASC and MCCC Director Mr Yang Xiaolong. On their part, MASC Secretary, Rev. Dr Glen Attard, OCarm, and the MASC Executive Committee coordinated and facilitated the logistics.