By Elizabeth J. Harris
Part 1 – Introduction
In November 1992, David Craig, head of Religious Broadcasting for the World Service of the BBC, and Rev. Martin Forward, Interfaith Officer for the Methodist Church in Britain, visited Sri Lanka to gather material on Buddhism for a series of programmes to be broadcast in 1993 during a focus on South Asia. I helped to plan their programme and was also asked to prepare a few talks for the World Service’s daily “Words of Faith” spot — a four minute pre-recorded broadcast sent out three times each day. Four talks resulted, broadcast in April and May 1993. Towards the end of 1993, I was asked for more and six went out in April and May 1994. Of these ten talks, eight have been selected for the present Bodhi Leaf: four from the 1994 series (presented first) and the four from the 1993 series (slightly expanded, placed after the 1994 talks).
The themes of the talks are rooted in my journey, as a Christian, into Buddhism. In the mid-1980’s I felt the need to “let go” of my own religious conditioning to enter the world of another faith. It grew from a conviction that people with an interest in religion should not remain imprisoned within one framework but should explore others. The choice of Buddhism and Sri Lanka was a natural one for me. Buddhism’s emphasis on meditation and non-violence touched my own interests as a Christian, and a visit to Sri Lanka in 1984 had left me with the feeling that my link with the island was not finished.
I originally intended to be in Sri Lanka for one year. One year, however, became seven and a half, from 1986 until 1993. My aim throughout was not only to study Buddhism but to practise it. I did not consider myself involved in “interfaith dialogue” although I’m sure some perceived my actions in this way. I wanted to enter Buddhism on its own terms, as a human being rather than as a Christian. The subjects of all the talks printed here arise from the personal journey of discovery that resulted. They draw on conversations with Buddhist friends, travel to different parts of the country in times of war, the experience of meditation, and my reading of the Pali texts. Most importantly, they reflect the concerns which developed as the interests I brought from Britain encountered Buddhism and Sri Lanka: the relationship between non-attachment and outgoing compassionate action; the practical meaning of anatta (no soul) and its implications; the benefit of sati (mindfulness) for the individual and society; the resources Buddhism can offer to those working for social justice and inter-ethnic or inter-religious harmony; the question of a woman’s role in society.
My journey into Buddhism was not always an easy one and of course I could not let go of my Christian conditioning completely, but it has brought me to a stage when I can say with utter sincerity that I revere the Buddha and take refuge in his teachings. I remain a Christian, one who seeks to follow the self-sacrificial path of Jesus of Nazareth, but I also feel at home in a Buddhist meditation centre. The talks, I hope, will show that this is possible. I dedicate them to all the Sri Lankan friends who have brought me to a deeper understanding of the heart of Buddhism.
Elizabeth Harris June 1994
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Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris