Interfaith Profiles: 3 followers of Eastern Traditions engaged in interfaith work

All too often when discussing interfaith work and dialogue, we are quick to think of cooperation amongst the major Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. After all, they are the most popular religions in the Western world. However, interfaith cooperation in North America is hardly limited to these three traditions.

Girish Shah

Silicon Valley, with one of the most diverse populations in the world, is home to the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council (SiVIC). This URI Cooperation Circle has an especially notable representation of members from Eastern traditions. Girish Shah, one of SiVIC’s founding members, is a Jain, a nearly 3,000 year old spiritual tradition originating in Eastern India.

“The creed of Jainism is non-violence, not only in action, but in speech and thought,” Shah said. “Talk translates to speech, and speech translates to action. To stop the violent action, we need to start with our thoughts. ”

Motivated by his faith, Shah is deeply involved with the council, servings as its treasurer and attending events.

“At meetings, we talk about general topics and faith, specifically how faith directs us to address different aspects of society. It’s one thing for the leaders to get together and talk to each other, but we wanted to reach larger numbers. So what we started to do was attended various events hosted by different faith groups,” Shah explained.

“For example, there was an Ash Wednesday event last month. Although this event is a traditional Christian celebration, our Catholic member made it an interfaith event,” he said. “We [SiVIC] celebrated Ash Wednesday by getting a better understanding of some of the beliefs and ritual of Christianity. Everyone made a reference to a similar event and celebration in their own tradition. By doing this, the whole public begins to understand the interfaith aspect of religion they otherwise don’t. They see that leaders from all different religions can work together and talk to each other.”

As a Jain, Shah explained how his faith inspires him to engage in interfaith work.

“Our faith also teaches us to look at multiple viewpoints, and look at all aspects to be able to understand the truth.”

Dr. Prem Kahlon

Dr. Prem Kahlon (right), a Sikh, is a member of the Nashville Cooperation Circle.

URI member Dr. Prem Kahlon is a member of the newly-formed Nashville Cooperation Circle in Tennessee

A practicing Sikh, Kahlon cites the teaching of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, as to why he is involved in the interfaith community.

“Guru Nanak went all over India, then to the Middle East, spending two years in Saudi Arabia spreading the message of one humanity and the universe of God. This is very similar to the URI goal and purpose.”

The Nashville Cooperation Circle meets in different places of worship to talk about peace, understanding, and to foster dialogue among different faiths.

Beyond that, his group is working towards a better future in a time of political and cultural tension both in their city and the world.

“What I’m hoping for is that we stop judging people by their color, creed, or faith. We must remember that there are fanatics and extremists in every religion,” Kahlon said “We need to stand up and not be afraid of these terrorists and people who kill in the name of God.”

Dr. Ji Hyang Padma

Dr. Ji Hyang Padma
Padam, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, is drawn to the modesty, simplicity, and respect for others that the faith holds.

As the Director of the Comparative Religion and Philosophy program at the California Institute for Human Science (CIHS), and a longtime URI member, Dr. Ji Hyang Padma also recently decided to organize a Cooperation Circle on her campus in Encinitas, California.

Padam is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and is drawn to the modesty, simplicity, and respect for others that the faith holds. Specifically, she is drawn to the practice of meditation.

“In Zen, there’s an emphasis on creating space within. If a teacup if already full, you can’t put anything into it. But through meditation, we create interspace and an atmosphere of listening and receptivity, through which we can receive the words of another.”

She cites her old mentor, the highly respected Cambodian monk, Maha Ghosananda, as her inspiration for working to build bridges among religions. A three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Ghosananda saw the commonality in all religions across the world, and a call for love and understanding.

“In Zen, there’s an emphasis on creating space within. If a teacup if already full, you can’t put anything into it. But through meditation, we create interspace and an atmosphere of listening and receptivity, through which we can receive the words of another.”

“He [Maha Ghosananda] said if we have an open heart, we need to respond compassionately to all the suffering in the world,” she said. “ If we’re really following the example of Jesus, Ghandi, or Buddha, we can do nothing else, and then the heart itself becomes our temple.”

For Padam, starting an interfaith group at the Institute was completely in line with the vision of CIHS founder Hiroshi Motoyama, who was a Japanese Scientist and Shinto Priest.

“He [Motoyama] clearly believed in the possibility to unite science and spirituality through finding the unity that is at the heart of all world religions.”

Padma emphasized that her Cooperation Circle, entitled CHIS Spiritual Education, seeks to move beyond dialogue and make a direct impact. For example, her group organized an event in November where a Lakota Chief came to campus to talk about water and water protection.The proceeds from the event went to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their struggle resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A few months later, when President Donald Trump’s signed a controversial travel ban on January 27, CIHS student and Iranian citizen Sarah Yarjani was in transit on a flight from Oslo to Los Angeles International Airport to resume her studies. When she arrived in the United States , she was detained for just under 24 hours, then sent on a plane back to Europe — even after a judge in New York declared the ruling unconstitutional the day the ban was implemented.
In response, the CIHS Cooperation Circle began contacting local newspapers, such as the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Soon, the story was picked up by national network news. Due to the publicity, Yarjani was eventually let back into the country.

Padma says Yarjani is now a key advocate for refugees and immigrants.

“Now, Sarah has been a force for the reconstruction and revision of immigration policies, because she has been able to speak very eloquently firsthand about the abuses that took place,” she said.

Padma’s again cites the work of her mentor, Ghosananda, as an example of what inspires her to to be involved in interfaith and social justice work.

“He would lead these walks from the Cambodia-Thailand border, where the refugee camps were, right into the capital of Phnom Penh, where many of these refugees had faced violence and been separation from their families,” Padma recounted. “ Through these walks, he was able to bring reconciliation and peace to his country.”

If you would like to get involved in interfaith work and/or the United Religions Initiative, click here to find the Cooperation Circle nearest you.

This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Ryan Polsky. You can read more of his work here