Priest teaches lessons from many faiths

joongangdaily   June 20, 2009

Every religion has a unique philosophy and instills its own distinct methods for seeking the meaning of life. But most don’t teach followers about other religious beliefs, meaning many believers think only of their own faith, neglecting others.

In the words of Father Bernard Senecal, 56, a professor in the department of religious studies at Sogang University in Mapo, northwestern Seoul, focusing on one’s own religion without attempting to understand others carries the risk of a narrow worldview.

Father Senecal, who also goes by the Korean name Seo Myeong-won, is a Catholic priest with the Society of Jesus, but he also studied Buddhism, ultimately becoming a scholar in that field.

He was born in Quebec, Canada, and lived there until he moved to France at the age of 19. Senecal studied medicine for six years and earned his bachelor’s degree at the Universite de Bordeaux in Paris in 1979. But he grew disappointed that medicine did not attempt to explain why human beings get sick and why they die, focusing instead only on treatment.

So he decided to become a priest and religious scholar. Senecal’s monastic life began during his study of theology at the Centre Sevres in Paris in early 1984. In the summer of that year, Father Senecal had the chance to visit Korea for the first time, touring the country for seven weeks.

During that period, he was impressed with Korea’s natural beauty, the kindness of the Korean people and the Buddhist temples. His interest grew, and he eventually considered moving to the country.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1985, he was dispatched to Korea as a missionary. In Korea, Senecal took three years of Korean language courses at Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute. He returned to France in 1990 and earned master’s degrees in theology and literature in 1993 and 1995, respectively.

Fascinated by Buddhist meditation, Senecal flew back to Korea to conduct research on Korean Buddhism. In 2004, the priest earned a doctorate in Korean Buddhism at the Universite Paris.

He says his ancestors were Vikings, and that their frontier spirit endures in him, leading him to push himself to attain a broad and balanced view. Senecal was interested in what people do not know about life, and wanted to challenge human nature.

One of his conclusions is that we can learn more about the meaning of life by bridging understanding between Christianity and Buddhism. But for that to happen, and for these two very different faiths to share disciplines and teachings, a great deal of dialogue must take place.

“Recently, several Korean monks stayed in an abbey in France for two years to learn about Christianity. Both priests and monks have to know and understand each other. Each ought to view the other side in an earnest manner,” the priest says. “Both Christianity and Buddhism are religions that have long traditions. Both have contributed much to humanity. So both still have to exist throughout human life,” said the professor. “Jesus and Buddha did not live in the same age. But they both can exist within our minds and hearts and manage our way of life. There are a lot of characteristics that can be exchanged and shared.”

According to Senecal, there are two ways in which Buddhism and Christianity can come together. First, Christians can learn from Buddhist spiritual training. Buddhist meditation can also find applications in Christianity as a way to explore one’s faith.

On the other hand, Buddhists should take lessons from Christianity’s involvement with society. Korean Buddhism, the priest says, has maintained a tradition of isolation from the outside world for hundreds of years and is therefore not accustomed to communicating with human society.

“It is inappropriate to think that one’s own religion is superior to others,” Senecal says. “Everyone’s efforts to seek the authentic truth of life have to be pushed forward at the same time. Communication with another religious group with even a small hidden agenda of conversion is improper.”

For this scholar-priest, religion plays a crucial role in forging a connection with God, awakening one to enlightenment by helping one learn the purpose of life. It is only upon reaching that status that people can enjoy true freedom.

One of the unique characteristics of Buddhism is its radical quest for the truth. Such efforts lead humans to overcome their hardships, Senecal says. In order to do so, three behavioral elements – morality, meditation and wisdom – are necessary, and among them, the priest singles out meditation as the most important.

In other words, Senecal says, Buddhism is the medicine of reality, or the medicine of medicines.
By Lee Min-yong []

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