This talk has already been published, and so if you would like to quote any portion of it please consult Fr. Cochini


I discovered the importance of Buddhism in the years 1961-1963, while studying Chinese in Taiwan. A discovery which coincided with the Council Vatican II, and the Church’s opening to the world. The necessity of dialogue with non-believers and non-christians was for me obvious, and the safe compass of my action in China, in spite of inevitable misunderstandings. Throughout the years, I had often the opportunity to visit temples, in Taiwan, in Japon, in mainland China and in other Asian countries; the Buddhist world became gradually familiar to me, although I had then only a superficial knowledge of it. At Sophia University, where I stayed in the 90s, I was fortunate to live with Frs. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle and Heinrich Dumoulin, both experts of Zen internationally known, and other Jesuits specialists in buddhology, who helped me, indirectely, to keep alive my interest for Buddhism, and more specifically for interreligious dialogue. But it was only after I left Japan and went back to China that circumstances allowed me to dedicate myself entirely to it.
Thanks to the sponsorship of the Macau Ricci Institute, I could undertake at the end of 2003 a survey on the situation of Buddhism in China, which, since the reform and opening policy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, witnesses a spectacular revival. Out of the more than 13,000 temples on the mainland, I had to make a selection. An official list of the more important ones had been published in 1983, and served as a roadmap. I visited thus one after the other 157 major monasteries of the Han nationality, crisscrossing China from North to South and from East to West, interviewing Monks and Nuns, and gathering a large amount of documents, which helped me write a “Guide of Buddhist Temples of China”, first published in French in Paris in 2008, and one year later in English by the Macau Ricci Institute.
I learned many things during this long survey. One of the most important ones was to find out that interreligious dialogue in China was not only possible but highly desirable. I confess that I started my visits with some apprehension, wondering how the Buddhists of a country run by the Communist Party would welcome a foreign catholic priest. My fears were dispelled from the first contacts, for I was received with sympathy and cordiality. This kind of welcome encouraged me not only to continue my survey, but to forge ties of friendship with Monks and Nuns, and to deepen my knowledge of the history and doctrines of Buddhism. A sincere friendship for the Chinese people is, I am convinced, the key which, like formerly for Matteo Ricci, can today open many doors.

I could also see on the ground that Buddhism is an essential component of Chinese culture. Together with Confucianism and Taoism, it forms an inseparable trilogy. The prevailing ideology is still Marxism-leninism, but, just after the Cultural Revolution, China, once again proud of its five-thousand-year-old patrimony, honors again its traditional culture, economic expansion and cultural expansion being linked in the project of international influence of the ancient Middle Kingdom. The contemporary neo-confucianism as well as the growing number of Confucius institutes in the world are signs of it. As far as Buddhism is concerned, there are also sure signs of it, like the huge investments from the government for the maintenance and the development of worldwide famous Buddhist sites, like the grottoes of Dunhuang, Yungang, Luoyang and others. On the wings of the Great Power that China is going to become, Buddhism, with its culture officially recognized as being part of the national heritage, experiences, and will experience in the years to come, an increasing development in many countries. Today dialogue with Buddhists of China is in the same time , and inseparably, a mission of inculturation.
A third important thing was to notice that for Chinese intellectuals and Buddhist leaders Buddhism is undoubtedly an atheism, whose first fundamental point is the negation of a Creator God. Interreligious dialogue can then preferably take place on the ethic level, for the high morality of Buddhism has many points of similarity, if not profound agreement, with Christian morality. The sentence which sums up the teaching of the Buddha, and which is written on the walls of most of the temples, is consonant with the Gospel: ”Avoid evil, do good, purify the mind. This is the Dharma!”. Buddhist ethics is a call to transcend the ego. One may wonder if this self-transcendence, in its highest forms, is not a search for the absolute, whose path, beyond the limits that his atheism and his images seem to impose, orients the Buddhist towards a "Mystery" whose name is still unknown to him.
I would like here to narrate some of my most recent encounters.
On July 14, 2010, I was invited to give a talk at the Longquan temple (the temple of the source of the Dragon), one of the major Buddhist monasteries of Beijing, whose Abbot is Ven. Xue Cheng, the vice-chairman of the China Buddhist Association and the Prior of four monasteries. I was moved, but happy, to speak in mandarin to a community of more than 300 Monks and Lay Faithful, and thanked Ven. Xue Cheng for his friendly welcome. Then, after having briefly introduced myself, I emphasized the importance of dialogue between Buddhism and Christianism: “I am not a Buddhist, but a catholic priest for more than 50 years. There are differences between our two religions, but I have a great esteem for the Buddhist morality, which is very lofty. My survey made me realize to what extent Buddhism is part of the Chinese culture. Buddhism is obviously the most important of the five great religions of China. Tai Xu, the great Reformer of Chinese Buddhism, said that he had a dream, namely to see all civilizations, old and new, western and eastern ones, merge into a world civilization. Now, Chinese culture plays, and can play, nowadays a major role in the shaping of this world civilization. And therefore Buddhism, which is an inseparable part of it, in order to overcome the crises met by the human society and build a new civilization… All religions must together contribute to harmony and peace in the world. In the West, Christianism is the most important religion, in Asia, Buddhism is the most important one. We must respect mutually, enter into a friendly dialogue and collaborate for a better world. You often say: “The harmony of the society begins with a change of hearts”; I would like also to say: “Interreligious dialogue begins with friendship”, for friendship dispels misunderstandings, prejudices, and anything that prevents people from understanding each other. It is to express to you my friendship that I came to see you. Every religion, throughout its history, has made mistakes. Christianism is no exception. But, in reality, mistakes are not caused by religion itself, but by people. In 1962, the catholic church convened a great council, in order to examine the major problems of the modern world; she changed her attitude about many things, specially about other religions, and adopted a very “open” attitude. We must be “open” mutually, for the sake of peace of progress of the world society…” Warm applaud, and an elogious commentary by Ven. Xue Cheng assured me that I had been heard. And, as early as the following day, the publication in-extenso of my speech on the website of the Longquan temple was a still surer sign that it had been well received. On that day, I left the monastery under great signs of friendship, and strengthened in my commitment to interreligious dialogue in China.
A week later, I paid a visit to Ven. Ru Rui, the Abbess of the Women Buddhist Studies Institute of Wutaishan, in Shanxi province. Co-founder and director of the Institut, this remarkable woman is known for her work in the field of religious education and for her social action in favor of poor children and the elderly. A Swiss association had selected her as a possible candidate to the Nobel prize, and submitted her name in 2005 to the famous Scandinavian institution. I knew her for a few years, and had great esteem for her. “Come back to-morrow, did she told me with a smile, you will give a lecture to our community!”. This invitation surprised me, for I knew very well the strict regulations which govern Women’s Buddhist communities. The next day in the afternoon, I was naturally on time for the appointment. Ven. Ru Rui led me to a great hall, where more than 300 young Bikkhunis (Nuns) in gray dress were already gathered, divided into two groups on either side of the room. Like in Beijing eight days earlier, I began explaining my interest for Buddhism, then I spoke at length about the need to develop friendly relationship between religions, mainly between Buddhism and Christianism, to contribute to the harmony of society and to world peace. In front of this female audience, I stressed the leading role that women will play today in modern society, and the importance of the training these young Buddhists receive today in their institute. “Do not be discouraged by difficulties, and always aim higher!” As women, you have a mission to fulfill, for we are no longer in a society dominated by men, but in a society where men and women are equal”. I could read on their faces that my words rang true to their ears. “ I am a bachelor, a religious like you, and I see women as my sisters. Harmony begins from the heart, that is the heart of all, Buddhists, Christians and others, all united by the same ideal and the same love…”. Ven. Ru Rui approved, and then spoke to stress the urgency of the union of hearts in our world that has become increasingly small thanks to the media. Afterwards, she invited those who wished to ask questions. There were a few of them. I remember in particular one of them, who asked how we, Christians, propagated our faith. I seized this opportunity to speak, among others, of the great missionaries St Frances Xavier, still not well known in China, and Matteo Ricci, of whom they had often heard. I was happy to be able to share thus my faith with those young Buddhist women, hoping that the future would hold other similar opportunities in store for me, and even more fruitful exchanges.
Last year, I travelled to Henan province, to visit Ven. Yong Xin, the Abbot of the famous temple Shaolin, well known as the ancestral temple of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, and cradle of martial arts. Ven. Yong Xin is chairman of the Buddhist Association of Henan province, delegate at the People’s National Assembly, and member of the National Youth Federation. A controversial figure, for he does not escape entirely the risk of marketing, and also because a success as spectacular as his one always draws criticism, he is one of the most prominent Monks in China, and enjoys a wide international reputation, his team of martial arts having made successful tours in more than 60 countries, including the USA, Great-Britain and France. The occasion to meet him was providentially provided to me by some roman friends , who informed me that Ven. Yong Xin had been invited to participate in the day of prayer for World Peace in Assisi on October 27, 2011. Ven. Yong Xin gladly agreed to receive me, and confirmed that he would go to Assisi, -asking me to keep the news confidential until the event-. I did my best to encourage him in his decision, promising him that I would pray that he can make that important trip without any difficulty. We had two long private conversations, one in his office at the Shaolin temple, the other one in my hotel the following day. Very open to dialogue, and wishing the relationship between China and the Holy See can be soon normalized, he spoke to me with great esteem of cardinal Etchegaray, who came for a visit in China some years ago. I ventured to tell him that, in my humble opinion, China would benefit in establishing good relations with the Holy See, for the Pope has a huge influence in the world, a thinking that he approved wholeheartedly. At the end of October, I had the joy of learning that Ven. Yong Xin had actually participated in the interreligious day of Assisi. I visited again Ven. Yong Xin last July (2012); he showed me with great pleasure his photo taken with Benedict XVI, and offered it to me as a sign of friendship. I told him this was an historical picture, since he was, to my knowledge, the first Buddhist monk of Mainland China ever to have had a meeting with the Pope. He agreed and expressed the desire to continue relations with Rome.
A few words in conclusion:
It is highly desirable that there can be meetings between Buddhists of mainland China and Christian organizations involved in dialogue with the great world religions, such as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue or the various monastic or secular societies in Europe or the USA. This doesn’t seem possible at this time. But, meanwhile, private conversations, like those I have just mentioned, can be useful to set up a network of friendship, dispel prejudices, and help create a growing climate of mutual trust.
I would once again emphasize the importance of friendship in human relations in China. Matteo Ricci understood that well; he did not count on an abstract strategy of inculturation of the faith, but, guided by various events, encounters and experiences, he tied on each occasion valuable friendships. His exemple is still relevant, a sincere friendship, proven by deeds, being the prerequisite and the climate necessary for fruitful meetings in a society where Confucian virtues are still alive.
Taking into account the fact that Buddhism is an essential component of Chinese culture, dialogue with Buddhists, to the extent that it requires an ever greater knowledge of their history, doctrines and institutions, is an effort of inculturation that affects the whole of Chinese culture. Unlike the time of Ricci, this effort of inculturation cannot be done today without taking into account the contribution of Buddhism. To dialogue with it is also, thereby, not only contribute to raising the moral and spiritual level of Chinese society itself, but also participate in the influence of Chinese culture in international relations, and work to promote the world civilization desired by all those who love peace and universal fraternity. The Jesuits of the end of the Ming and of the beginning of the Qing dynasties were the pionners of exchange of knowledge between China and Europe, bringing to China their knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, cartography and others. The role of their successors of the 21th century will be perhaps, in reverse, to help the Christian West to revive, by the contribution of values borrowed from the best sources of Chinese culture, and therefore also of Buddhism.
It will take men animated by a great love for China et for the Chinese people, with a good command of the language, theologians of a sound and creative doctrine, to meet the new challenges of evangelization, with a good knowledge of Buddhism, sincere friends and respected interlocutors of the Buddhist communities.
The participation and the initiatives of the local Church in that field are naturally indispensable. The formation of the clergy and of the faithful to interreligious dialogue, according to Vatican II, is of prime importance. When circumstances permit, the establishment, in China itself, of Buddhist-Christian organizations will facilitate this formation, as well as the contribution of the whole China Church to the project of world civilization.
“Non coerceri maxima, contineri minimo, divinum est”, used to say St Ignatius. Not lose sight of the important project, and, day-to-day, within the limits of the possible, weave modestly bonds of friendship, is a task that slowly builds the future.

Christian Cochini s.j.
Some time before, I had sent him a copy of my “Guide of Buddhist Temples of China”.
“Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest: that is divine”.