Bernard Senécal is unique. This Quebec Jesuit taught Buddhism in South Korea, where he has lived since 1985, and is now the director of the Way’s End Stone Field Community, as well as a longtime contributor to Relations (the journal of the Centre justice et foi).
Seo Myeongweon (his Korean name) has always understood the life of a Jesuit as that of a man who goes to the peripheries, who confronts difference and accepts being transformed by it. “It seems that the Christian tradition is going to be renewed through significant encounters,” he says, “and among the signs of the times is this potential encounter with Buddhism. I think we’re still on the threshold of that encounter.” In any case, he is recognized as one of the great contributors to this rich interreligious encounter desired by Pope Francis.
Indeed, the pope told the participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (2013), “It is widely thought that coexistence is only possible by hiding one’s own religious affiliation, by meeting in a kind of neutral space, devoid of references to transcendence. But here, too: how would it be possible to create true relationships, to build a society that is a common home, by imposing that each person set aside what he considers to be an intimate part of his very being?” Fr Bernard is an example of someone who creates a common home with others.
From Montreal to Seoul
Born in 1953 in Montreal, Quebec, into an upper-middle-class Roman Catholic family, Bernard Senécal had a childhood dream of being a farmer. As a young adult, he tried unsuccessfully to get into medical school. His family pushed him to study in France. He spent five years studying medicine in Bordeaux, where he discovered spirituality and realized that he was not cut out to be a doctor. “It became abundantly clear that I had to stop my studies,” he says. So, in 1979, he entered the Jesuits in Lyon.
In 1982, he was asked to go on mission to Korea, which he accepted. When he arrived in Seoul, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, was at Sogang University.
“He warned me that it would take ten years to learn the local Ural-Altaic language and Sinic culture and not less than twice that to begin to render innovative service to the Korean Church. Those words have proven to be true.”
Fr Bernard began his studies in Korean language and civilization in 1985, completed a doctorate in Korean Buddhism in 2004, and received a diploma as a Seon (Korean for Zen) master in 2007. He became a professor at Sogang University (2004–2015), a researcher, and an assistant editor in chief of the Journal of Korean Religions. In the process, he was immersed in another culture, which has had a great influence on him.
At the crossroads of the way of Christ and the way of Buddha
“From the beginning of my studies in Korean language and civilization, I began to wonder about the meaning of Christ within a universe of thought where shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Protestant sects of all denominations, and new religions coexist and interact,” admits Fr Bernard.
As he explains in his book Jésus le Christ à la rencontre de Gautama le Bouddha, the Jesuit questioned his identity as a Christian as he began to be attracted by the message of Buddha. In his quest to reclaim his faith, however, he discovered that the tension between Christ and Buddha was disappearing, that the Christian and Buddhist traditions were harmonized within him.
Sharing about a mystical experience, he says, “I felt that the more I went towards the Buddha, the more I was going along a path that would lead me back to Christ.” And this intuition has never left him.
Fr Bernard believes that the study of another religion, such as Buddhism, is humbling and can serve to revitalize Catholicism. “There are universes of religious thought that emerged without having to wait for Christianity, and they continue to exist very well without it.”
Way’s End Stone Field Community
Since 2014, Fr Bernard has been leading the Way’s End Stone Field Community with a number of lay people. Located about 100 kilometers from Seoul, this community, which includes a few people with physical disabilities, practices organic farming on a 3,000-square-meter plot of land. (Fr Bernard has finally become a farmer!) Being ecumenical, interreligious, and international, the community is unique in Korea. “Twinned with a Korean Buddhist association called The Way of Seon (Seondohoe) and linked to the lineage of the Chinese master Linji (ninth century), it specializes in a multidimensional encounter with the tradition founded by the Buddha. At the crossroads of the path of Christ and that of Buddha, the Way’s End Stone Field Community offers a spirituality that reconciles intellectual reflection and connection with the earth,” explains the Jesuit. It is also a concrete response to Laudato si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. And in the words of Pope Francis, the future lies in this kind of community.
“We want to live our Christian identity in relation to Buddhism. We want to go as far as possible in the encounter with Buddhism,” notes Fr Bernard, while insisting on the fact that he is not proposing a new religion, but rather a new way of understanding the Catholic tradition.
“In the Christian tradition there is a concept called the negative way, which consists in going beyond words to a mystery that seizes us and that is in the realm of the unspeakable. This current has not been explored sufficiently to revitalize the tradition, particularly within Catholicism. The very essence of Buddhism is to lead to the end of this negative path. In Biblical language, it is the refusal of any kind of idolatry. Is there room for Christ in a system that sends everything to the scrap heap? This is a question for Christians, not Buddhists. If we accept that Christ is not an idol, then there is a place for him. This Buddhist enzyme can enable Christians to rediscover this apophatic movement, which encourages us to go beyond words to let ourselves be seized by the mystery of the Word, by the eternal Word.”