By Dena Merriam
I began my professional life as a writer and didn’t begin working in the interreligious field until I was in my forties. It happened quite by accident. I never would have imagined that I would be working with spiritual leaders and communities across the globe, even though my own spiritual practice has been the center of my life since I was quite young.
My work in this field began when I was invited to help organize a summit of religious leaders that was to take place at the United Nations in the year 2000. In the process of organizing this event I noticed a very visible lack of women religious leaders and began to question why this was so. I was told by some religious leaders not to press this issue and so put the thought aside. Then during the opening session of the religious summit, I was confronted with the gender question. A very senior monk had been asked to offer the first prayer to open the summit in the United Nations General Assembly Hall, but according to his particular monastic order he was not permitted to come in close proximity to a woman. There was a Buddhist nun seated on the aisle where he was to enter, and we were told that she had to be moved in order for him to enter the Hall. She was the only woman in the Thai delegation seated there, and she didn’t understand English. A number of our staff tried to get her to move but she indicated that she needed to stay with the monks in her delegation, so my colleagues came to me in desperation. “You must get that nun to move,” insisted one of my colleagues.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she is a woman,” he stated. I was stunned. The clock was ticking, and we were already late getting started. Fifteen hundred religious leaders were now seated as were many United Nations officials. The monk was waiting to enter the hall, and it all rested on me. In the end I did ask her to move and she complied. After this we became friends, and she was one of the founding leaders for the Global Peace Initiative of Women. This incident, small though it may seem, seeded my work to help create a global platform for women religious and spiritual leaders. A number of other incidents took place that also indicated there was a strong need for this, and so I began to travel the world seeking out women spiritual leaders from all faith traditions, building a network and creating programs where they could lead and shape the dialogue.
Our focus at the beginning was peacebuilding because it seemed clear to me that the missing dimension in most peace efforts was the spiritual component. Where economic and political considerations are often divisive, spirituality is unifying because it taps shared human concerns. At first we brought women spiritual leaders to help guide dialogue with people in conflict areas, but then this initiative expanded to include an equal number of women and men.
There was another incident that took place during my early years in the interfaith world. I noticed that in addition to the lack of women’s voices in the interfaith work, there was also an imbalance between East and West. Interreligious dialogue was mostly among the Abrahamic faiths and the Dharmic or Eastern traditions were either left out or minimally represented. Shortly after the religious summit held at the United Nations, I was invited to attend an interreligious conference organized by the World Council of Churches in Geneva. It was a large and impressive gathering but there were just a handful of people representing the Dharmic or Eastern faith traditions. At the end, one of the Hindu leaders got up and said it is not enough just to invite us to participate, we are looking forward to the time when we can join in the shaping and creating the vision for interfaith, when we truly become equal partners in this endeavor. Again, I was stuck by the obvious necessity for this.
We are moving from an age of exclusivity to one of inclusivity, and for us to be truly inclusive there has to be balance and true sharing at the highest level, and at the deepest level. The whole global dynamic may shift when East and West balance one another and when male and female are in balance as well. Our challenges are of too serious a nature to exclude a large portion of the human population, or any of the wisdom traditions. All wisdom is now needed. Once we overcome these imbalances, it just may help us rectify the ecological, social and economic imbalances as well.
As we have gone deeper into the interreligious work, we have begun to look for those who have experienced the unity of religions, those who have come to know the meeting point, where the religions converge – the mystics of the many traditions. This has led to the founding of the Contemplative Alliance, where long time practitioners can come together in a new model of spiritual unity.
My work was inspired by the need to address deficits that I found in my area of activity. As these deficits began to be addressed, I moved on to tackle other shortcomings that were preventing interreligious engagement from going deeper. The goal was always to enter such a deep place of communion where those engaged could come to know the unity of the religious traditions – to recognize the common goals, aspirations and practices that inspire all true spiritual seekers.
Dena Merriam is the Founder and Convener of Global Peace Initiative of Women. She serves on the boards of the Interfaith Center of New York, AIM for Seva and Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association. Former member of the board of Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions and the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. She is the Co-Chair of the Millennium World Peace Summit, the first summit held at the United Nations General Assembly for more than 1500 of the world’s religious leaders.
Dena Merriam is the recipient of the 31st Niwano Peace Prize.
The Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive The Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.
This article appears in:
2014 Catalyst, Issue 9: Inspiring Women Are Rising