Monday, December 14, 2009

A brief retrospective on the 2009 Parliament of the World Religions

I was hoping to be able to blog during the Parliament itself, but found there was too much going on to settle down to do much in the way of reflection and typing, so I'm submitting some retrospective posts. This first one is just to give an overall impression.

I attended the Cape Town Parliament in 1999 and it left an indelible impression – both the event itself and the spaces all around with many kinds of encounter. With thousands of participants, it's a major undertaking for the organisers (the Council) – on this occasion the printed A4 programme provides descriptions of many hundreds of presentations, workshops and performances and is 390 pages long!

It's perhaps an even greater undertaking for the hosts: Melbourne had the honour for 2009 and it demonstrated a major commitment – a very professional venue (Melbourne Conference and Exhibition Centre); backing from civic authorities; a harmonious multi-cultural society with sensitivity to historical contexts; and excellent hospitality exemplified (I think) in the homestay programme.

Parliament Foyer

However, there wasn't much time for self-congratulation. Whereas 1999 had been an occasion for grand visions at the turn of a millennium, ten years later there was no escaping practical calls to action and entering the Exhibition Centre one would encounter every day an ecological message:

Fossil Fools

Here, though, many 'environments' were being tended, especially the inner environment, the heart. It's just the kind of issue – it was felt – where religions can offer more complete perspectives, which are rooted in whole mind or the heart-mind (a Buddhist term is citta). I also encountered quite a lot of synchronicity. Within minutes of stepping into the Convention Centre for the first time on the evening of the 3rd, I had seen two of the participants of the Coalition meeting, a group of from the Australia branch of Wat Phra Dhammkaya, who were running a couple of meditation sessions, and interfaith friends from Oxford, including Mary Braybrooke, who ran inter alia a session on attitudes to the elderly and dying (hope to write about it in another post). Here they are at their respective Parliament booths:

Mary Braybrooke in conversation at the Brahma Kumaris / WCF / IIC booth

Parliament booth for the Dhammakaya International Society of Australia

Participation takes many forms. the programmed sessions were opportunities to listen, hear; the other periods (sessions usually had 30 minute intervals) were opportunities for dialogue in small groups; I felt something akin to a wafting sensation as I wandered into art spaces, conversations etc. Conversations could be free-floating in undefined spaces, over lunch, in public gatherings off site, or a bit more structured, as at an official Parliament booth or open sessions. Whilst this 'collective effervescence' was quite energising, we were acutely aware that the real challenges remain in terms of application. In the closing plenary, His Holiness the Dalai Lama referred to Swami Vivekenanda in communicating the spirit beyond this event and over several days the Council advertised quite heavily a new social networking site, PeaceNext to facilitate this cooperation. It's a nice gesture, though is it sustainable given the plethora of more established sites ...?

I hope to share from the very small proportion of sessions I attended, but it may take me a while. So please wander over to the official Parliament site, where there's a lot of coverage, including audio-visual recordings, especially from the plenaries, though sessions were not generally recorded (this is partly reflecting the sensitivity of some of the topics under discussion).

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