A top figure in Thai Theravada Buddhism, the Venerable Ajahn Thong died on 13 December at the age of 96. Together with Chiara Lubich, they experienced the highest level of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
Midway through the 1990s, Phramaha Thongratana, a Thai Buddhist monk, had the opportunity to meet John Paul II and get to know the Focolare Movement and Chiara Lubich. He became known in Catholic circles as Luce Ardente. Thanks to him, the great master Ajahn Thong spent some time at the Focolare’s little city of Loppiano together with his young follower.
After the early meetings that they had with Focolare’s founder, there was great hope for further dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity in Thailand, which, in the monks words, needed to be accomplished “gently, with exquisite compassion, with much love and caring for it with our hearts.”
To this he added a fundamental consideration for dialogue: “These two terms – Buddhism and Christianity – are only two words … it is the good and love that unites all people of every race, religion and language, and helps everyone to meet and coexist together.”
From that moment his commitment was decided and at times astonishing even: “As long as I breathe and live, I will try to build true and beautiful relationships with everyone in the world.”
Chiara Lubich confirmed these sentiments with an invitation and a prediction: “Let’s continue to prepare the way, living according to the light we have received, and many will follow.”
With this background the elderly, venerable monk Ajahn Thong arrived at Loppiano, where he stayed at the Claritas spirituality centre, which regularly welcomes those from religious orders of various congregations, who come for an experience of communion between charisms.
Two Theravada monks together with Franciscans, Salesians, Jesuits, Dominicans and others: it was prophetic.
Venerable Phra Phrom Mongkol was deeply touched by the welcome he received and, meeting Chiara, he commented, “The fact that you invited Buddhist monks to come here to be among your people is something so beautiful.”
This was not just simple formality or politeness, although those are characteristic of the Thai people. These were the early steps of a profound spiritual experience, which the monks were already quite aware of.
Chiara’s expectation of that first meeting was one of an attitude of listening aimed at learning, not teaching. “I am happy with this visit in order to learn something beautiful.” she said. “What is the heart of your teaching?”
From that point, an unforeseen path unfolded. At the start of 1997, in fact, the Catholic leader was invited to Thailand by these top figures of Buddhist monasticism. It was not to be just a courtesy visit. Chiara was invited to address and share her Christian experience with various groups of monks, nuns and lay Buddhists, both in Bangkok and above all in Chiang Mai. It was there, at the Wat Rampoeng Temple, that the great master introduced her with these remarkable words:
“All of you, my followers, might ask yourselves why this mother, who is a woman, was invited. I would like you monks and seminarians to forget this question and not think of her as a woman. Those who are wise and able to point to the correct path for our lives, whether woman or man, are worthy of respect. It’s like when we are in the dark: if there is someone who comes to bring us a lamp to guide us, we are grateful, and it doesn’t matter to us whether that person who came to bring us light is a woman or man, a child or adult.”
These few words seem to be a condensed version of the great wisdom of this capable man, together with others, who was able to walk the way of dialogue fearlessly, bringing others along with him on this prophetic experience.
Lubich herself, touched by this sensitivity and openness, noticed a higher presence in this relationship and turned to the great master with words that feel like a prophecy: “Let’s continue to prepare the way, living according to the light we have received, and many will follow.”
And so it was. For 25 years this dialogue has continued and developed.
Even in death, there was something in common between this ancient monk from the thousand-year-old Theravada tradition with a Catholic woman who recently founded a movement in the Church. On 7 December, in fact, the celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Chiara Lubich opened in Trento, including an interfaith event on 7 June 2020.The venerable great master had expressed his desire to attend.
Theirs is a friendship now destined to continue in eternity.
(Co-director for Focolare Interreligious Dialogue)
A conversation with the Great Teacher Ajahn Thong a service of the Collegamento CH of 13 February 2016