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Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery (Atlanta) paint mandala with dyed sand granules inside Salt Palace during Parliament of the World’s Religions.


Monks work several days painting with sand to create mandala during Parliament of the World’s Religions 

By Albert C. Jones
America, The Diversity Place

Salt Lake City — Sixty percent of those who registered for the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, are women. Majority of speakers and presenters in the Salt Palace Convention Center for the themed “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity” are also women. Began in Chicago in 1893, the parliament is the world’s largest inter-religious gathering.

Amid rituals filled with pageantry — scores of SHEROES United drumming on Native American drums — regalia, colorful expressions of headdress and various attire, ceremonial robes, begin the case for results of strategic design reported here at the parliament’s “Inaugural Women’s Assembly.”

SHEROES United reflects role models with shared values in families, communities and globally as an “epic force for positive change.” Their enterprising stories reflect women who are “strong, empowered and believe in themselves.” Among 300 SHEROES drumming this morning are Shelly Morehead of Saratoga Springs, Shelley Marshall and Carita Davis of Park City.

Ten thousand people from more than 80 countries representing 50 different religious and spiritual traditions have come to Salt Lake City for the five-day parliament, October 15-19.

The first parliament in Chicago in1893 drew 3,000 to 7,000. The 100th anniversary parliament in Chicago drew 3,000. Cape Town, South Africa, featuring President Nelson Mandela, drew 7,000. Barcelona in 2004 had 9,000 and the 2009 parliament in Melbourne, featuring His Holiness the Dali Lama, drew 6,500.

The Women’s Task Force formulated an initiative in Melbourne that bore fruit in Salt Lake City, achieving its aim “to promote and continue ensuring that women throughout the world have a voice in important interfaith dialogue.”

“Religion has historically been ‘hands off’ on the issue of rights for women,” says The Rev. Dr. Phyllis Curott, a Parliament of World Religions trustee and vice chair. Her remarks to the Inaugural Women’s Assembly appear as an “Ideas” post on the “Time” magazine website.

“For thousands of years,” Curott says, “the idea of male superiority has perpetuated violations of women’s essential dignity and safety, an archaic view that many religions and many religious leaders and institutions continue to this day. The consequence for women is not just soul-damaging discrimination; it’s deadly.

“Religion has played a role in imposing constraints on women’s basic freedoms to be safe, healthy and live free of fear,” she says. “It’s affected how they control their bodies, move about freely, own property, choose to marry or obtain a divorce, retain custody of their children, have their testimony given equal weight in court, receive an education, or simply work. Brutal injustices have been justified by misinterpreted or selectively edited scriptures, texts and teachings.

“Though public opinion is moving in the right direction,” Curott says, “the door to formal leadership remains closed in many traditions and injustice remains dictated by men who claim their actions are backed by faith. That means women are often systematically excluded from decision-making that influences and determines the quality of their lives.”

Another hallmark gained from the task force is 50 percent of workshops and presenters are women-themed and led by women, including “Religious and Spiritual Sources of Inspiration and Empowerment for Women.” Presenters include Mormon feminist blogger and activist Tresa Edmunds, Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, Mallika Chopra, daughter of Deepak Chopra, Dr. Alka Arora, chair of the Women’s Spirituality program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and Ruth Wyler Messinger, president of New York-based American Jewish World Service.

Mallika Chopra, founder and CEO of, “connects with others by sharing and listening to each other’s stories.”
She learned the power of intention at a young age from her famous father. He taught his children “to ask for love, hope, purpose, passion, inspiration and so many other positive qualities in their lives every day,” she says. “Start every day with intent to be an anchoring device that leads to connection, happiness and personal fulfillment.”

Childhood memories are of a father, a medical doctor, who drank heavily and chain smoked. Deepak Chopra was “unpleasant to be around,” she says. “My brother and I liked it better when he was away at work at the hospital and not at home.” That is, until one day, when she was nine-years old, her father, “suffering in a mid-life crisis, walked into the Transcendental Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” In that TM Center, Deepak Chopra learned how to meditate.

“For the first time in his life, my father had a sense of peace, connecting to himself and connecting to something bigger,” Mallika Chopra says. “That really began his spiritual journey. So we really grew up in a spiritual context. From the beginning, my dad was quite melodramatic in terms of his experiences. I always feel that TM was an incredible gift given to me — a tool that helped me throughout my life.

“We were taught on a daily basis to ask for the qualities in our lives that would make us happier, healthier, more connected, and for a purpose,” she says. “I feel that was a great gift as a child to look for these qualities in our lives.”

Ilyasah Shabazz works as a community organizer, social activist and motivational speaker. She is a tall woman, reminding the audience that her height comes from her 6-foot-5 father. Shabazz is author the memoir “Growing Up X.”

“I’ve been asked to speak about women’s empowerment,” she says. “The first thing I thought about was my mother. My mother was my greatest source of inspiration. Whenever I found myself at my lowest point, I had to take a step back and look at my mother. I had to look at her not from the perspective of a daughter but to look at her as a woman and as a human being.

“I came across this beautiful quote by Washington Irving: “‘A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.’

“People often ask me, ‘What was it like being the daughter of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X?’ Well, I can tell you there were a lot of expectations. I remember going off to college. People have this perception of my father that was absolutely incorrect. My father was love. My father was peace. My father was integrity. My father was brotherhood. My father was sisterhood. My father served God with his entire being. He traveled the world searching for peace for all of us, asking for not a penny in return for himself or his family. My father was a very young man and most people don’t realize that.

“I was raised to be very proud of being part of the African Diaspora,” Shabazz says, “proud to be a woman and proud to be a Muslim. I was raised to understand the importance of education and history, the importance of humanity, leadership and self-reliance — that I am my brother and sister's keeper.

“My mother was a young woman, just in her 20s, when she witnessed the assassination of her husband. She was traumatized, frightened and lone. She was a young woman with four babies and pregnant with my younger (twin) sisters. I often asked myself, how was this young woman, Sister Betty, able to overcome such a loss and so many obstacles and still raise six daughters in a nurturing environment, dedicate her life to significantly giving back to others. Get a Master’s degree and then get in her car once a week to drive from New York City to the state of Massachusetts to get a doctorate. She never accepted no or I can’t as an answer for herself. She survived because of her faith in God and because she knew the importance of self-esteem, self-respect and a quality education.”

Arora was raised Hindu, owes much of her understanding to Hindu traditions, but no longer practices Hinduism. Current teaching and research include “multicultural feminist theory, spiritual activism, Buddhism, animal ethics, and integral feminist pedagogy.”

Arora begins listing no fewer than a dozen complaints, including “destruction of the environment, hatred and ethnic cleansings.”
“I wanted to start talking about that is because we need to acknowledge the problems that religions have been embroiled in before we can develop them as tools for our transformation and transformation of the world,” she says. “We need not close our eyes to these very real challenges that have plagued our traditions and continue to plague traditions today.”

Arora offers this audience a series of questions. “What do we do with these (problems) and why do we persist? Why does the Parliament of the World’s Religions draw so many people from all over the world despite these problems? Some of my secular friends would ask that very question. They say, ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses, why bother?’ But there is something within us that keeps us persisting and keeps us bothering with our religious traditions. I would argue that something is that direct experience and connection to something greater than ourselves.

“Something greater,” Arora says “than the misogyny and sexism and the racism, ethnic cleansing, and all those things actually causes us to implore and to resist those things as opposed to perpetuating them. This something else that has spoken to people’s souls that has caused them to found religious traditions and to leave traditions because of messages that they have received directly from a greater source, whether you call that source God, goddess, creator, spirit or the divine is something that keeps us moving forward.”

Arora mentions French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” as resourceful to raise questions of “why?”

Another day before sunrise, Glenn, a Native American, is smudging. A line of people stopped to be cleansed of negativity. Two teepees are nearby. Eyes closed, smell of sage smoke has a pleasing aroma that returns to the senses several days later. Glenn waves burning smudge stick along body front and back. From a pouch, he places a pinch of crushed tobacco in your palm. Prayer is offered seemingly in a climb up at the fire in a circular metal burner. Prayers are offered then the tobacco is tossed into the fire.

Inside the Salt Palace, Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery have not arrived yet to continue constructing a sand painting called “mandala.” Sand is actually crushed marble dyed multiple colors. Monks will have laid millions of grains of sand to complete the colorful mandala. Near the mandala is an altar with a portrait of His Holiness the Dali Lama that also includes fruit offerings.

Some of the orange-robed Buddhist monk, citing panoramic mountains and graciousness of the people here, affectionately charged attendees to call the host site “Sweet Lake City.”

At the Parliament’s conclusion on Monday, monks will sweep away the sand, gather sands and pour the grains in a nearby river. “Nothing lasts forever. It shows that,” Geshe Loden, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, told the Deseret News.

Nearing seven o’clock, the Rev. France A. Davis and members of Calvary Baptist Church of Salt Lake City are getting ready to hold a worship service in Room 155 C. Three deacons lead praise and prayer. Members of the Inspirational Choir sing. Pastor Davis notes that Calvary formed in 1893, three years before Utah was granted statehood in 1896.

With Psalms 133:1 as text — “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” — Davis delivers a homespun and folksy sermon titled “Symphony of God.”

Here in Room 251 A, women are in a circle holding hands discussing flow of “Women’s Spiritual Leadership and Empowering A New Generation.” Another of the shared sessions, it is a product of Women of Spirit and Faith which originated at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne.

They are Laura Paskell-Brown, Erin Schendzielos, Anne Fitzgerald, Kay Lindahl, Alison Fast, Kathe Schaaf, Mohini M. Mundy and Karen Boyett. A man comes in the room and joins hands with the women in the circle. The circle breaks. Session begins with the Rev. Guo Cheen, a Buddhist nun, joining the panel. Parliament moderator is Anisha Ismail Patel.

About 50 are in attendance, including the one man.

“We are not hearing as many voices as men,” Schaaf says about Melbourne. “Women don’t have a way to connect because the parliament is rooted in tradition. There is no voice for women no longer affiliated with institutional religions, those women who have fallen through the cracks. Women of Spirit and Faith are a ministry for women to talk to one another.

“For six years, attending two large conferences in North American, we gained confluence and developed alchemy,” Schaaf says. “We have a deep commitment to hearing the voices of all women.” Speaking to the younger women, she says, “We believe we need your intergenerational leadership.”

Panelists respond to the same question: “What do you know to be true in this moment about the growing edge of your own spiritual leadership?”

“For me, there is a lot of warmness and a wealth of beauty in this room,” says Schendzielos, a campus minister in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“Stillness and quite is important. We need to be listening-in from leaning-in,” Fitzgerald says. “I feel that it is so important that we listen, listen, listen. We as women need to do this absolutely. We as women are a thread. We need each thread to form a tapestry. We need to bring Indigenous and African women’s wisdom to Western women. What does that mean? What will it look like? When it comes to me, I will say yes.”

“Continually be aware and open and present and grounded in what is going to happen next,” says Lindahl, giving 77 as her age. “Women need to continue building space, being a presence, so they can say what they have to say. It’s not easy. I’m excited about this time in life. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m excited. This is the best time in life.”

Shaven-head bhikṣhuṇī (nuns) are members of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA), City of 10,000 Buddhas in Ukiah, California near San Francisco. Nuns lead panel discussion titled “Sisters on the Path: Choosing A Life of Simplicity and Compassion.” Nuns touch on personal experiences, how they chose their life, roots of DRBA, community living and community structure.

“I’m American-Chinese,” says Bhikṣhuṇī Heng Liang. “I was raised Christian and enjoyed that part of my upbringing. I majored in a computer science program. The future was promising in terms of what I would earn. But I had a sense of hollowness. Material things were not enough. I felt like a tired individual who could do nothing.

“I went searching for a teacher and found the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua,” she says.” I discovered a way to understand myself and understand my own mind. I met the Buddha and changed myself for a lifetime and made a full-time commitment.”

Saturday plenary session on “Income Inequality” announces goal of “eradicating extreme poverty by the year 2030.”

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCN), talks about poverty in refugee camps in Afghanistan. One of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Kelly is described as an American peace activist, pacifist, author and founding member of Voices in the Wilderness. VCN campaigns to end U.S. military and economic warfare.

Katharine Hayhoe likened being in Hall 4 & 5 for Sunday’s plenary on climate change to her first time speaking in an airplane hangar. Exhibit space is packed with several thousand people. Hayhoe, associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, is an evangelical climate scientist. Known nationally, she makes the case that climate change — global warming — is being caused by man.

Monday morning at the Indigenous Peoples plenary, Ta’kaiya Blaney, 14, sings wonderfully like an accomplished artist accompaniment by guitarist Robby Romero. Blaney is from the Sliammon First Nation (British Columbia). She is also a seasoned speaker, having addressed the United Nations children and youth conference on the environment in Bandung, Indonesia and the Rio+20 UN Conference on the environment in Rio de Janeiro.

“I feel that as humans, as participants and beings that walk upon this earth, it is our responsibility to help the earth,” she says. “We all need to take steps towards a clean and healthy future regarding animals, humans, plants, and the various ecosystems. Our earth is our home. Over the past four years, I’ve been an advocate for providing better qualities of living in Indigenous First Nations territories, and ending the oppression, racism, and corruption we face from our government and within our community.”

Portrait of His Holiness the Dali Lama is included among offerings on Buddhist altar inside Salt Palace during the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Salt Lake City.

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