Report by Mary Pat Fisher, Gobind Sadan, New Delhi
TOWARD SECOND GLOBAL FORUM OF SPIRITUAL CULTURE, for planning meeting of the International Organizing Committee WFSC, October 17-18, 2014, Astana
1. After several wonderful meetings with each other, many of us participants are still unsure of the meaning of “spiritual culture.” We request that this phrase should be clearly defined during the planning meeting, and that the definition should be part of any document prepared by the Committee, for our clearer focus on a common goal and the inspiration of the general public.
2. Given the dangerous divisions and violence being fanned by fanatics in the name of various religions, the Forum should have as its key focus practical methods of restoring harmony and building interfaith understanding so that we can successfully and peacefully live together as members of one human family, even though we follow different religious paths and come from different cultures. There has been quite enough of dissension throughout human history. It is high time that we become truly civilized and work together to solve the extremely serious issues facing our planet, including climate change, poverty, environmental degradation, and terrorism.
3. The Forum should highlight efforts at ending terrorism and building interfaith appreciation that have already shown practical positive results. One such initiative is ongoing at Gobind Sadan, centered in New Delhi, India. Under the guidance and blessing of Baba Virsa Singh (1934-2007), Gobind Sadan celebrates the holy days of all religions with love and joy. In the central community, there are also many places of worship according to different religious traditions, including Darbar Sahib of Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book), sacred fires, mosque, Jesus’ Place, Buddha and Mahavir meditation hall, temples to major Hindu deities, and place of Jewish worship. People of all castes and religions are welcome to worship at any of these holy places, and thus naturally learn that all are natural and familiar ways of worshipping—nothing is seen as strange, foreign, “other”. Babaji also gave continual education about all prophets and scriptures in his talks, weaving them together naturally so that their similarities could easily be seen. Now that he has left his physical body, weekly classes giving spiritual lessons from all religious traditions are offered for the children of the area, who participate enthusiastically and with growing spiritual understanding of many paths to the same Truth.
4. Since many members of the International Organizing Committee are already successfully using social media, YouTube, and websites as well as print media to promote the objectives of their organizations, it would be good to include a session at the Spiritual Forum on pro-active use of such media to reach large numbers of people quickly and effectively so that the forces of goodness and peace become much stronger in the world, countering the negative efforts of a few who have captured the attention of sensationalist media and are advancing the cause of division, hatred, and violence.
Location: Astana, India, USA?
Astana has proved to be a wonderful host city for the Forum, with generous hospitality, an admirable existing multi-religious and multi-ethnic culture of peaceful co-existence, wonderful traditions of music and dance, lovely places of worship, and marvelous gathering spaces provided with approval from the central government and excellent leadership by Tolegen Mukhamedzhanov and his devoted assistants.
If for some reason it is deemed better to hold the Forum in a different location, India might be able to offer some of the same advantages: an existing multi-religious and multi-ethnic culture, varied gathering spaces, marvelous traditions of music and dance being carried on by highly skilled artists, and many lovely places of worship both new and ancient. There is also high interest in spiritual tourism in India that might help to bring international participants who would pay for their own travel expenses. For example, organized tours of ancient Buddhist holy places in various parts of India draw many people from around the world. India also has beautiful natural places, from Himalayas in the north to beaches in the south. Tours to holy or natural places could be offered as links to the Forum for those who would be interested. The current central government has promised to support an environment of stability and international welcome in order to attract more foreign investment, so it might be helpful in some way in arrangements for the Forum. Gobind Sadan would be happy to host a meal and tour of its unique interfaith spiritual community for the participants, but lacks accommodations for a large group. Its auditorium is lovely but can seat only about 150-200 people in chairs and benches, more if many people sit on the carpeted floor. There are larger auditoriums in Delhi and other cities.
Council member Robert Chase has created many important initiatives through his Intersectiions International based in New York City, so perhaps New York—also highly multi-cultural—might also be considered as a venue for the Forum, with Robert Chase and his team helping to organize meaningful interactive events. New York is easy to reach by air from many parts of the world. If a more natural setting were preferred, there may be appropriate venues outside New York City. Summer camps in the countryside might offer off-season possibilities in late spring and early fall.
Ideally, the Forum should be held during good weather in that part of the world. October is rather cold and windy in Astana; perhaps summer or September would be better? If India, there are a few months of very pleasant weather in northern India: February, March, October, and November. Other months tend to be very hot or surprisingly cold in north India. In New York, winter months are probably the worst weather, with snow causing major problems for transportation and sometimes even electricity outages.
Voices from all sectors of society should be welcomed in the Forum, and there should be interactive events so that they are truly drawn into participation rather than just sitting and listening to speeches. It is probably unlikely that the Forum can finance air travel for many people, so there would have to be a very relevant practical agenda to encourage people to travel to the Forum by their own means. Participation by low-income people and children would probably have to be subsidized somehow. Without their voices, the Forum would be quite incomplete. There has been enough of preaching to the converted after decades of interfaith conferences where the same people meet each other in lavish hotels in different parts of the world. Social and spiritual differences among participants can create much deeper, richer, and more transformational effects of the Forum.
Possible presenters—will depend on location and agenda
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches, author of books including The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, composer of beautiful choral and orchestral music including St. Matthew’s Passion oratorio.
Sallie McFague, distinguished progressive Christian theologian and author of many powerful books including Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. She now lives in Vancouver.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, known as the “Green Patriarch” for his passionate defense of the natural environment. He lives in Istanbul.
Deborah Bird Rose, Professor of Social Inclusion in Sydney, Australia, with long-term research among aboriginal people of Australia, interweaving social and ecological justice.
Sulak Sivaraksa, Thai Buddhist social activist, founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, author of books including Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society.
Christopher King, Harvard professor of religions, author of books on Engaged Buddhism.
Somjit Dasgupta, master sarod player from Kolkata, India, working to preserve classical music and instrument-crafting traditions of India; also very knowledgeable about the spiritual roots of Indian music.
Kathleen Dean Moore, Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University, where she directs the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. Her books include Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril.
Ralph Singh, storyteller and founder of Wisdom Thinkers, Founding President of Gobind Sadan USA, near Syracuse, New York. He is very familiar with Baba Virsa Singh’s work in ending terrorism and responding to hate crimes with forgiveness.
With hopes that the Forum can be a truly powerful and constructive vehicle for spreading goodness and peace in the world,
Mary Pat Fisher, Gobind Sadan, New Delhi