The Dharma of "Abha"

February 11, 2007

I began typing this message while sitting in the business office at the Berkeley (California) Buddhist Monastery. I've been meeting today [Sat Feb 10] with the three trustees elected to represent North America on the United Religions Initiative (URI) Global Council (GC) as well as with other staff and volunteers. One of those trustees is Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, the head of the monastery. Every Saturday night he gives a "Dharma talk"; I missed most of it on the way back from a wonderful Turkish dinner. Perhaps 20-30 people where in attendance in person — Chinese, Vietnamese, and Caucasian Buddhists — as well as dozens more around the world through a webcast.

He asked all of the URI folks to come up front, be introduced, and say a few words about our interfaith experience. I cannot do justice to the brief, spur of the moment stories that were shared by my fellows, moving though they were. Indeed nervous enough was I that I cannot recall the story that immediately preceded my own, which I'll now share a bit more cogently than at that moment.

The monastery hosted us for a magnificent buffet-style noon meal, primarily Vietnamese, entirely vegetarian. The meal was begun with an offering chant to the Buddhas and Bodhissattvas. Five Buddhas were named in the chant — Vairochana, Nishyanda, Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Guatama, "the" Buddha), Amitabha, and Maitreya. Now I had heard the word "Amitabha" before and someone had recently pointed out to me the presence of "abha" in this word, so sitting next to Rev. Heng Sure I thought to ask about the word: "unending light" he translated. Amitabha Buddha is the Buddha of never ending light, he is the source of wisdom and truth. The Buddha Hall in which I later sat relating this story was adorned with a large yellow-robed glass Amitabha facing and blessing the assembled congregation.

I explained to him that "abhá" is the Greatest Name in the Bahá'í Faith, a variation on the "bahá" in the title Bahá'u'lláh and the name Bahá'í — follower of Bahá'u'lláh, follower of glory or splendor (of God). We use it in greeting one another and in prayer, with "allah-u-abhá" and "ya bahá'u'll-abhá." He noted that it was likely a false cognate, but that did not dampen my feeling that there was something more than coincidentally meaningful about the "abha" root showing up in this context. Light and glory linked by vibrations in the air.

So I as told the Dharma group about these two syllables, I explained that this connection of words helped me to see the intertwining of ideas and faiths, of principles and people. I could see my Faith in their belief, I could see the harmony of our shared understanding that the physical surface of the world is not the end of reality. I hope this expressed sufficiently the Buddhistic notion of inter-connection: "You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing." (Thích Nhât Hanh)

Having been asked to share something, and forced to extract a story from this brief conversation, the experience itself became even more real and alive for me. In that moment there was true power in interfaith — a power in connecting hearts, and a power in deepening my own understanding of the faith I have chosen to follow. "Why not put an end to this religious strife and establish a bond of connection between the hearts of men?" (�Abdu'l-Bahá)