Melbourne, Australia – December 2009
By David Nelson (Devadatta Kali)
Editor’s note: Devadatta Kali kept a daily diary of his experiences at the Melbourne Parliament; what follows are some excerpts selected by your Coordinating Editor. That said, the entire diary (of about 40,000 words) is fascinating and well worth any
of our readers’ time. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to request an electronic copy.
In 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, spiritual and religious leaders met together for the first truly global interfaith gathering, the World’s Parliament of Religions. One hundred years later the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago set out to commemorate that momentous event, which had opened the doors and the minds of America to religions from the East. As enthusiasm grew, many people of many faiths wanted to participate, and Chicago found itself once again hosting a global interfaith conference, now called the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Eight thousand people from 125 traditions took part. As a result, a permanent body, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR), was formed and has since held Parliaments in Cape Town, South Africa (1999), Barcelona, Catalonia (2004), and now in Melbourne, Australia (2009).
Having attended the three modern Parliaments, I was not about to miss the fourth. What follows is one small account from one personal perspective. More than 6000 people flocked to Melbourne from all over the world—from Brazil and Lapland, from Nigeria and Japan, from the United States and India and all points in between. They represented 220 different traditions. Considering the diversity of individual experience they brought to the Parliament and the diversity of the events they encountered there, it is safe to say that there are as many accounts of the Parliament as there are people who shared in its wealth of offerings.
Opening Plenary (Thursday, 3 December, 7:30–10:00 PM)
There was excitement in the air as I waited with Guru Jaya Das (Arnold Pomerantz) at the entrance to the Plenary Hall in Melbourne’s imposing new Convention and Exhibition Centre. He and I were the only attendees from Kashi Ashram in West Hollywood, where we are fellow servers with Under the Bridges, a grassroots charity that distributes meals and clothing to the homeless in the Los Angeles area.
I am also connected to the Vedanta Society of Southern California, which my dear and longtime friend Swami Atmatattwananda (a monk of the Ramakrishna Order) represented.
The doors opened and we made our way into the 5553-seat auditorium, where spread out on the stage we saw the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra together with a choir of 80 voices and an assortment of other musicians, including an Aboriginal with a didgeridu.
The program consisted of musical performances; welcoming speeches from dignitaries of the national, state, and city governments; keynote addresses; and blessings by the clergy of several religions—Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, and Australian Aboriginal. The opening ceremony, which began at 7:30 PM, lasted until after 10:00, a full hour later than scheduled.
Rabbi David Saperstein delivered the first keynote address. Recognized this year by Newsweek as America’s most influential rabbi and by the Washington Post for his activities on Capitol Hill, Rabbi Saperstein delivered an impassioned talk that exceeded the allotted five minutes. Never mind. His rousing message needed to be heard. At no time in history, he said, has humankind been so technologically empowered—and so endangered by the consequences of bad decisions. “We are the first generation that grows enough food to feed every human on earth. … We are the first generation that can educate every child, that can speed freedom across the globe. Our failure to do so is a failure of moral vision and political will.”
Dr. Sakena Yacoobi delivered a heartbreaking message on how her country of Afghanistan has been destroyed. Her solution to the horrendous conditions and the suffering that grips her homeland is education. To that end she founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, a women-led nongovernmental agency that supported underground schools for girls in the 1990s and continues to work for women’s empowerment today. Her message formed a touching counterpoint to the unwelcome news of President Obama’s just-announced decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to that country. “To what avail?” my notes read. “Maybe we’ll learn more in the coming days from Afghans like Dr. Yacoobi, whose experience suggests a better solution than military action.”
An unforgettable moment took place while the choir sang “Bogoroditsye dyevo Raduisya” [Rejoice, O Virgin] from Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil. This a capella chorus soared into exalted spiritual realms, suggestive of the highest attainments of European civilization. And then I noticed Alan Harris, the didgeridu player with the red loin cloth and white paint all over his dark body, seated at the front of the stage in profile with the choir behind him. What a juxtaposition. Here was a man that many hearers of Rachmaninov’s music might consider a barbarian or a savage, yet he radiated the same quiet, the same dignity, and the same exaltedness as the music. It was as if he and the music had become one. This unforgettable moment was not uniquely mine. Two days later Guru Jaya Das confided that he had had a very similar experience.
In all, the opening ceremony held out much promise for the coming week.
Each Parliament day was divided into five sessions
The Parliament day was divided into five sessions: morning observance, intrareligious session, interreligious session, engagement, and open space. For any one of these time slots, there were up to 28 concurrent events, and often the choice was difficult. In all, the Parliament offered more than 650 presentations.
The morning observance, lasting from 8:00 to 9:00 AM, gave attendees the opportunity to participate in a religious service or practice of their own or another spiritual tradition. The choices included Baha’i, various branches of Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, Islam, Paganism, Shinto, the Sikh religion, Zoroastrianism, new religious movements, and indigenous traditions. The Christian denominations included Roman, Ukrainian, and Coptic Catholicism, Anglicanism, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and the Uniting Church—a mainstream Protestant denomination formed by the merging of the Australian Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches.
The intrareligious sessions ran from 9:30 to 11:00 AM and were designed to let each religious or spiritual community present its teachings, values, and commitments. Many of these sessions took the form of panels, allowing for more than one voice to be heard.
The same is true of the interreligious sessions, which followed from 11:30 until 1:00 PM. Here speakers or panelists of different religions came together to present their views, revealing both commonalities and differences. The position of the Parliament has never been to forge any sort of uniformity but rather to promote a unity in difference. The thousands of participants in their many modes of religious and national dress conveyed without speaking a word that the Parliament is a celebration of diversity.
After an hour-and-a-half lunch break, the engagement session ran from 2:30 to 4:00 PM and allowed for speakers from all backgrounds to discuss particular issues facing the world today.
The afternoon’s last event, the open space session, ran from 4:30 to 6:00 PM and was intended for planned encounters or free discussion on a topic of choice. The programming also included theatrical, musical, and dance performances throughout each day, as well as a total of 28 films.
Each evening was devoted to a plenary session organized around a particular theme.
The main theme of the Parliament was “Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth.” Under this broad title, the hundreds of presentations were concerned mainly with global warming and other environmental issues, human rights, social justice, indigenous peoples, women’s issues, poverty, economic inequality, food and water, health, peace, religion and the media, interreligious strife, interfaith dialogue, and the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions.