RIAD 2013 in Thailand

RIAD : Does that evoke anything for you? They are the initials (in French) for the International Assumptionist Meeting for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Dialogue. These meetings are held every two or three years and have three main aims: – a time for sharing and exchanging experiences and convictions among the brothers and sisters of the Assumption family who are involved in the ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue or who are preparing for that mission; – the formation of the participants through theoretical reflection and the sharing of experience; – that the theme of the meeting be linked to a fundamental aspect of the Assumption Family charism. 
 
This year the theme of the meeting was: the discovery of Buddhism and of the religious life in Asia. 
 
This, the sixth RIAD, was held in Bangkok from the 15 – 25 July 2013. It was a time of discovery of Thailand and its inhabitants, of the culture and history of the country, of Buddhism and of the small Catholic Church. It was an exciting encounter with another world – a change of scene and a sense of wonder were assured! 
 
There were forty participants from the five Assumptionist families, representing sixteen countries: Argentina, Belgium, Cameroon, Chile, China, Congo, Korea, USA, France, India, Japan, Philippines, Rumania, Thailand, Togo, Vietnam. Most of those present were young and dynamic. Three Little Sisters participated: Thao from Vitry (France) and Hoa and Colette from Di An (Vietnam). 
 
The Religious of the Assumption, who are well established in Thailand, made it possible for us have some very interesting visits and encounters, thank to their acquaintances and friends. Also, these sisters were marvellous interpreters for us as they know the language very well. 
 
The visits were organised in three language groups: Vietnamese, French and English, with a Thai-speaking religious in each group. Each group circulated in a minibus and that was how we got to see Bangkok and its contrasts. 
It is not possible for us to share all the discoveries of those ten days. Here are just a few echoes of our different experiences, which were as interesting as they were varied. 
 
’Immersion’ days 
 
Our first ’immersion’: a glimpse of Bankok.
 
A boat trip provided us with a general view of Bangkok, a city with ancient monuments that is also a rapidly-expanding city with skyscrapers and interchanges that easily rival those in western countries. At the foot of those monstrously high buildings, concealed by clusters of tall trees or alongside the river, there are small uncomfortable houses. 
 
On leaving the boat we passed through a market on our way to the royal palace. The many different scents we detected spoke to us of a world that was unknown and attractive. 
 
In front of the royal palace the tourists were wrapping themselves in a long piece of cloth: decent dress is obligatory for this visit! Behind the palace gates there is a series of gardens and some magnificent buildings with, in the middle, the temple of the Emerald Buddha. We had, of course, to take off our shoes before entering. While the faithful there were praying we contemplated the richness and beauty of the place. The walls are adorned with miniature paintings that retrace the life of Buddha. In another building, frescoes, all rivalling one another in beauty, evoked the history and legends of the country and of its royalty. 
 
In the royal textile museum we are also able to admire traditional Thai garments, in silk, several of which were designed by the French designer Pierre Balmain. The delicate refinement of the queen’s official costumes, on display in showcases, caught our eye. 
 
After a meal in the restaurant of Silpakaoan University that plunged us back into everyday life, we went to a residence for the king that is constructed entirely of teak. In it there is a collection of the many gifts offered by other countries: porcelain, ivory, ceramics, as well as Thai works of art. 
 
Then we set out for Siam Niramit, a large complex containing many elements that helped us to enter into the Thai culture: hostesses in traditional dress, an orchid offered in welcome, varied handcrafted objects for sale, a reconstituted Thai village with its different trades, musicians, dancers, smart restaurants and a self-service cafeteria which, we can assure you, is very good, with very tasty dishes that are very well presented! 
 
That evening, still in the same complex, we attended an imposing event in a theatre that seats 2,000 persons. It was a son et lumière presentation consisting of a series of magical tableaux that led us into the history and legends of Thailand. Before the per-formance began all the spectators rose to sing or listen to the national anthem in honour of the king. 
 
A visit to three social initiatives 
During the following days three groups were organised in the same way to visit three social initiatives. One group went to the poor areas of Klong Toey and discovered what is being done to provide education for the street children and to support mothers who are HIV positive and their children. Another group visited the agricultural projects initiated and supported by the king. They constitute a type of research centre for sustainable development and the utilisation of products (e.g. in cultivating rice, nothing is lost, everything is used, it is even possible to make rice ’charcoal’). The third group was received by the Good Shepherd Sisters of Angers. The sisters of that community work for the rehabilitation of women who are exploited in sexual tourism, and of single mothers, and support them. They have organised schooling for the children as well as several training workshops for the women. 
 
Experience in a Buddhist monastery 
Another experience that delighted all the participants was a stay of a day and a half (including the night) in a Buddhist monastery. Once again, there were three groups. 
 
The first went to a monastery consisting of a few men, situated a few kilometres from Bangkok. Their project is basically linked with another manner of cultivating the earth and respecting their lifestyle. Thao tell us some more about it… 
 
’Yes, the inter-religious dialogue is possible!!! The project for this stay in Bangkok included a meeting with some Buddhist monks. Thirteen of us participated for 24 hours in the daily activities of the Nakhon Pathom monastery. This experience helped me to understand better their life and their precepts. They have an austere, simple, poor, happy and joyful life. The experience of immersing myself in their morning meditation enabled me to become aware of the importance of meditation on the Word of God. Their way of life is a call to reflect on my way of living the vows. 
 
The second experience was the discovery of the poor district of Klong Toey. After two and a half hours on the road (it was very difficult to find that area) we arrived in the shantytown of Thaï and there I discovered another situation. In a reception centre for mothers and children we could see the means being used to educate the children. This project is supported by persons who wish to collaborate in the practical actions for education undertaken by this centre. All this touched me deeply and reminded me of the path followed by Etienne Pernet and Marie de Jésus at the beginning of the Congregation. 
 
In discovering the Thai culture and its openness to other religions, I realised that the inter-religious dialogue is possible. That awakened in me a desire to study more deeply the forms of Buddhism that exist in Vietnam. 
A glimpse of the life of the district where the monastery is and the visit to the shopping centre in the city of Bangkok, made me perceive, there also, the gap between a poor district and a big city. The comparison between the Buddhist belief and the Christian faith was very enriching.’ 
 
The second group went to a monastery of women founded by a convert. It was the testimony of a simple life in a consumerist world. Hoa tell us something of what she experienced there. 
’I chose the group that visited Songhammakayani-Nakhon Pathom, the first monastery solely for women in Thailand, as we were informed by Dhammananda, the mother abbess. Dhammananda is one of the first Thai women to be ordained "Bhikkhuni". In Buddhist terminology: priest (monk) = Bhikku; woman priest (nun) = Bhikkhuni. The monastic community of Songhammakayani consists of 12 religious who live together very simply. They share community life, prayer and the food that is given to them. The aim of this monastery is that, through their way of living according to the teachings of Buddha, they might witness to a simple life in the midst of a consumer society. 
I think the limited time we had – two days and a night – was not sufficient to make an in-depth discovery of another culture, another religious tradition. However, it gave me the opportunity to approach another religion, Buddhism and to know it a little better. At the beginning it was difficult for me: everything was strange and unknown, in a different language. In the course of this experience the fear I felt disappeared and I realised that all these persons are also children of God, they have the same Father as we Christians have, our Father in heaven, even if their faith is not like ours. Thus the Kingdom of God is theirs. So, an inter-religious dialogue is always possible if we maintain openness of heart.’ 
 
The third group also went to a monastery of women where, again, the foundress is a convert. They are women who love life and are at the service of life – notably that of women and children. Colette tells us about it. 
 
’We began with a visit to the nursery school attached to the monastery. That day there was a celebration: the children were going to present candles to the monks at the neighbouring monastery. It is a very ancient tradition: just before the rainy season – three months during which the monks did not leave their monastery – the people of the village used to bring them the candles they needed so that they might have light during their time of study in the evening. This custom has continued. 
 
A volunteer then explained to us the teaching method of this nursery school: a method of love. They do not teach reading and writing but they teach the children how to live together: respect, compassion, creativity, responsibility – all this through practical and simple activities. 
 
We visited all of the monastery, which is built on land acquired by the foundress twenty-five years ago; at the time it was a piece of wasteland. It has become a marvellous park with many different species of trees and flowers, with lakes and pools, paths, bridges, grottos for recollection, meditation or parent-child recon-ciliation through play. There are very many terra cotta statues of children in this garden – it indicates the priority given to the child. 
 
On the roof of the buildings for guests and activities there is a terrace arranged as a place of recollection in the open air; at the end of the terrace a grotto has just been finished. It receives light through many little round openings; the inner wall is covered in the finest of gold leaf. It is there, in that golden temple, that pregnant women are received to prepare themselves for their delivery and to prepare the child to come into the world. 
 
Every week-end the monastery receives over two hundred young people who come to meditate and be guided by the "Mother" along the path of wisdom initiated by Buddha. My life as a Little Sister resonated in harmony with that of these nuns.’ 
 
  On the final immersion day, a Sunday, there was par-ticipation in the Sunday mass in a parish. One group attended mass at the Redemptorist parish where the church was built according to Thai architecture. A second group went to the Holy Cross church and had a time of sharing with the parish priest. Persons from the Christian community, of Portuguese descent, had prepared a copious breakfast. The third group went to the church of St John where there is a large Filipino community. This group celebrated twice: with the Thai community and then in English with the Filipino community and some foreigners resident in Bangkok.
 
In the afternoon we went to the Chatuchak market, a little town within the town! All kinds of handcrafts, many sweet-smelling fruits, grilled meats and fish, natural health products – everything can be found there! We had been strongly advised to bargain – it’s part of the culture! But, that is something you have to know how to do! It is best to be accompanied by somebody who is experienced in that particular form of encounter! 
 
Talks on the socio-economic reality and migrations 
We also had several talks that enabled us to understand better what we had seen, felt and appreciated through the discovery experience. 
 
Dr Apichart Intravisit presented the socio-economic reality of Thailand and, through the topic of migrations, Fr Doroteo Reyes OMI gave us another aspect. 
 
The first speaker reviewed some dates of the history of Thailand from the bronze age up to its entry into ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations, a political and economic association), and mentioned the notable conflicts in the quest for democracy. The king has a dominant role in Thailand; he is respected and venerated as a father. At present, it is he who creates the unity between the various ethnic groups present in the country. 
 
The second speaker described the migrations into Thailand from Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, giving the reasons for this migration: unemployment, the desire for better living conditions. With a daily wage of 300 baths (1 US dollar=28,25 baths) Thailand is an attractive country for its neighbours. But integration is difficult. Even though Thai language classes are offered it is difficult for the workers to attend them because they take place in the evening, after the day’s work. The jobs the immigrants find are those that the Thais do not wish to do: seasonal agricultural work and, especially, building work. 
 
Some light on Buddhism 
A Buddhist monk, Phra Maha Boonchay, outlined for us some general ideas concerning Buddhism in Thailand. 
 
He presented the Buddha, the first: prince Gautama, who was born in 623 B.C. and died in 543. He showed the path to follow if one wishes to emerge from ignorance and advance towards illumination. We alone can follow these stages, nobody can save us except ourselves. However, we can journey with the Buddha and take into account, through specific and daily practice, the directions he gives in his teaching. 
 
What about the social involvement of Buddhism? This depends on the different trends: for some it is necessary to have attained ’illumination’ before helping others; for others it is the opposite. For himself, there is a call that the monks advance alongside others. We must be involved in society at the same times as we advance towards illumination. 
 
What does dialogue with the Christians bring him? There are similarities between the life of Jesus and that of the Buddha in what concerns compassion, agape… ’For me, today, I can try to live like Jesus. I can journey with him. We can share his experience of a simple life’. 
The different levels of the inter-religious dialogue: – the dialogue of day-to-day life; – dialogue through action in common for a better life: peace, justice, respect for creation; – dialogue in the understanding of dogma; – dialogue in the sharing of spiritual experiences. 
 
Justice and Peace Commission in Thailand 
 
A Jesuit, Father Wichaï, who is a member of the Justice and Peace Commission in Thailand told us of his experience of working in the field of social justice, and also shared the richness of his experience in helping people to restore their links with their real source of life: the earth, nature. He proposes meetings to reflect on the development of capitalism. ’It is a form of violence that is inflicted on us, a manipulation that separates us from what we are. We must recover our awareness of who we are, of our values. People do not want to see the negative values in the development of Bangkok, in that growth we renounce our traditional way of living.’ 
 
He mentioned the problem of prostitution and the immense task of awareness raising that needs to be done so that young women and men will not be caught up in a system without really having wanted to be involved it. This trade is very lucrative and he talked of it as an industry. 
 
An inter-religious group, in work they undertook against anti-personnel mines, began with a time of prayer; this was at the request of one of the women. Many Muslims later came to say that this way of proceeding should be repeated. For Fr Wichaï, the life of prayer must be rediscovered, the spiritual life is the true strength of a society. ’Working for the common good makes it possible to resolve conflicts, to open up to one another, to build peace.’ 
As we have gone too far in separating human beings and nature, he wished to build his own ashram so that people might come and renew themselves by re-discovering a form of simple life that is in harmony with nature and with their own traditional values. ’It is a matter of re-connecting with our true sources of life. 
 
’Today, the question is not the Cross or Buddha, the real challenge for all the religions is God or Mammon.’ 
 
The Church in Thailand 
 
A layman who is active in the Church, M. Chainarong, gave us a brief outline of history of the Church in Thailand. The first Dominicans (Portuguese) arrived during the 16th century, followed soon after by the Franciscans and the Jesuits. The Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) arrived in 1622 and the king gave them land on which they were able to construct a church, a college and a hospital. In spite of this, there were persecutions some sixty years later. The tolerance accorded to the Christian varied depending on the king; at some periods there even an appeal for missionaries (so as to benefit from commercial contracts with the West), or an awareness that ’it is a bad system to persecute the religions… they should be left to live freely’. Indeed, Thailand means ’land of liberty’. 
 
Today Christians constitute 0.7% of the population; there are 300,000 Catholics, 409 parishes, 10 dioceses, 774 priests.
 
Each day began with a Eucharist ’in tongues’. Three times we had a long period of adoration together. We also had a whole day of integration in calm and silence. It began with a Eucharist celebrated by the bishop of Bangkok. In his homily he dwelt on the conditions for the inter-religious dialogue. 
 
So, that is our effort to share our experience. It is like a drop of water from that abundant and life-giving rain we received during those ten days. 
 
The participants: Thao, Hoa, Colette