Indiana is known for basketball, not Buddhism.
But don’t tell that to students and faculty at Franklin College in Franklin, who have taken the lead in opening an interfaith dialogue throughout the Hoosier state. A lot of people wouldn’t expect to find such a strong multicultural presence in the rural heartland. Still, from upcoming road trips to see the Dalai Lama to on campus Mongolian fashion shows, the Baptist affiliated college has made it a priority to educate students both in and out of the classroom about the commonality of different faiths.
For more than 35 years, Professor of Philosophy and Religion Dr. David Carlson has been encouraging this inclusive approach at the college. Among other positions, he now serves on the committee responsible for bringing the Dalai Lama to Louisville. His study of renowned spiritual writer and Kentucky Trappist Monk Thomas Merton has aided in this partnership. The Dalai Lama accredits Merton for first introducing him to the concept of interreligious cooperation.
“In that way, as a Christian, (Merton) saw Christ in everybody, not just in fellow Christians or other Catholics. He believed Christ had entered into humanity and remains with us. And because of that, he was just open to everyone and learned from them,” Carlson said. “Knowing people of faith in other traditions helped him be a better Christian so it’s almost paradoxically the opposite of what some people fear.”
Championing interfaith dialogue hasn’t always been easy for the Christian chaplain. Preconceived biases and deeply held beliefs about others can take a lot of work to overcome. Some who practice other faiths believe the mere study of a different religion is a sin. Carlson doesn’t see it that way.
“The more I’ve become involved in interfaith work, the more real Christ has become to me. He hasn’t receded. My faith is so much stronger because of this work,” he said. “From a Christian perspective, I do feel frequently that Christ is blessing this effort. And I want to be faithful to that belief.”
More than anything, Carlson said he believes personal experience is the best method to bring about a deepened understanding of others. Campus minister Rev. David Mark Weatherspoon agreed. Inquisitiveness about other religions, he said, is natural for students.
“What we do is tap in to that curiosity and say your faith is not going to be destroyed. If anything, you’re going to learn what you really believe as opposed to what mom, dad, pastor, whoever has told you to think or believe by entertaining some of these tough questions,” Weatherspoon said. “That’s not losing your faith by any stretch of the imagination. That’s deepening it. That’s really what these things have provided and it’s been a beautiful experience.”
In a downstairs corner of the college’s student center, a vibrant testament to interfaith awareness and opportunity has already been preserved. Two years ago, Franklin alum and His Holiness the Dalai Lama Louisville PR head Lisa Morrison arranged for Labrang Tashikyil monks from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India to come to the college and create the sacred sand mandala. Slow and meticulous, the men funneled millions upon millions of colored grains of sand one layer on top of another until a concrete picture celebrating world peace began to form.
“That’s the challenge for small colleges in Indiana — how do we give students personal experiences of diversity? And that’s why the monks were a real gift to this campus because we couldn’t have programed or constructed that. It happened naturally,” Carlson said.
As the mandala progressed, so did the changing perceptions of the students. Former Floyd Central graduate and current Franklin College junior Aaron Blair watched the methodical construction. Raised in Southern Indiana, he’d never seen a Buddhist monk before. After a time, he tried to talk to the artists, although more through gestures than words due to the monks limited English. Blair thought the visitors would be stern and serious, like the Catholic vicars of his youth. Much to his surprise, they weren’t.
“They’re down to earth. You’d think they would be strict,” Blair said. “It’s very cool. Their tools were very neat. What they did was they put the sand in a brass instrument like a funnel and then they would tink it and the sand would come out.”
Sand mandalas are normally destroyed after completion, a nod to the central Buddhist tenet of impermanence. Not this one. Permission had been granted to save the work of art. And the piece is available for students to view, albeit somewhat carefully, in a tabled case.
Unlike an hourglass, the benefits of the interaction with the monks didn’t end when the sand found its final resting spot. Both Carlson and Weatherspoon continue to promote interfaith dialogue and multicultural awareness. More than 20 Franklin College students will journey down to Louisville for the Dalai Lama’s public talk. Some student journalists have even obtained press credentials to cover the event.
In addition, thanks to Morrison, the Tashi Kyli monks will return to the college in September and construct another mandala which will give the community another chance to personally experience a different culture.
“It really is about engaging compassion. It’s the fear, the lack of information that drives that division,” Morrison said. “I truly believe in karma. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed it. It shows up in my life all the time. I really feel like that experience was meant to be and there was a higher power guiding that.”
For more information about interfaith talks and activities that have been planned to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s Louisville visit, check out www.festivaloffaiths.org. Also, the Ali Center will be hosting several events as well. Find their schedule at alicenter.org.