Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Faith and Tolerance

According to the local legend in central Java, if you walk around each level of the massive Buddhist shrine of Borobudur, reading the relief panels that form the walls and depict in stone the Buddha’s own journey, and if you climb the staircases to the top, where 72 bell-shaped stupas crown the last three terraces, and if, after squeezing your arm through the diamond shaped holes in one of the stupas, you are able to touch a Buddha sculpture contained within, and if you have faith, then bingo, enlightenment will descend upon you like a lightning bolt. Enlightenment is quite the payoff for a simple hike in the Indonesian sun, a bit of time spent studying stone carvings, and a final stretch of an arm through a hole to finger a Buddha. I am a liberal gal, but I am not convinced that achieving complete peace and understanding could be that easy, even at the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, otherwise everyone on earth would have attained it.
Borobudur is, in fact, a mountainous mandala that rises like a drippy sandcastle between two volcanoes, composed of nine platforms of ascending size- a kind of nine-step program to transcendence and salvation. Two and a half million pilgrims flock there each year on their spiritual journey. I am not a Buddhist, but what the heck, enlightenment couldn’t hurt my chances for heaven. I thought I would give it a try. Like an impressive resume item, it might look good when trying to pass through those Pearly Gates, something to make Jerry Falwell jealous. Although my arms are short, I could imagine my hands successfully caressing a Buddha at the top of the shrine and the bolt of all knowing grace zapping my head.
I happen to be a person of faith and believe in possibility. I have faith that tomorrow will be a better day. I have faith that the problems in my life will sort themselves out, and like many people, this is what keeps me going with a smile on my face. And, whatever faith, or lack of faith, floats your boat, well, that’s just fine by me. However, like most tolerant liberals, don’t hound me about your individual beliefs. It’s your spiritual business, not mine, and I am happy for you.
Millions of Buddhists have spent countless hours, countless years, and countless life times, struggling to become enlightened beings, to be one with the universe, and to live in a state of nirvana. No more rebirths. No more back to earth after one’s death, trying to figure it all out again, and again, and again. Whew. It’s a complex system of thought, and one that is hard to wrap your mind around. There are 376 million Buddhists attempting to attain enlightenment at this very moment.
I have tried meditating at a Buddhist Zendo. It was not easy. Zen Buddhists spend hours in total silence, folded in a lotus position, as they contemplate a nonsensical Koan, or question that has no rational answer, waiting for the electricity of enlightenment to bound down upon them. If they happen to be caught napping on their cushions, they are enlightened instead with a bash to the head by the Zen master’s stick. I love to talk. It was especially difficult to keep my mouth shut and my mind focused on meditating. Since I was a guest to the Zendo, I felt sure they wouldn’t hit me, but just incase, I tried to concentrate and keep still. As I sat in my lotus position, I felt the needle pricks of sleeping muscles. I had been instructed to not so much as twitch a toe. I tried to transcend the pain with the Lamaze breathing techniques that I had learned in preparation for childbirth, and then I remembered that when my children were born, the muscle contractions had me begging for heavy sedation.  My mind wandered from meditation to singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to myself in order to pass the time. When it was all over, I was limping like a geriatric patient. I longed for a wheel chair to roll me home, and for someone to dump me into a hot tub of Epsom Salts. I have known for a long while that enlightenment for me would be a difficult undertaking.
It started as joke, on that June day, on the island of Java. I was bragging to anyone who would listen that I would be enlightened by noon. I had faith that that kidding around about faith could lead to some type of personal revelation regarding truth. I was wrapped in a sarong that was identical to the black and white print bedspread from India that I used in my college dorm room. It was a gift from the hotel and a requirement for entering a Buddhist temple, monastery, or shrine. Even though I looked like a fat sausage with elephants parading across my thighs, I was ready to tackle the stairs of Borobudur.
I began my climb. It was ninety degrees. On Level 3, I was hot and sweating. Perhaps an enlightened being radiates heat. The steep irregular stone stairways with crowds of tourists clamoring upward were exhausting. On Level 5, I was tired. Perhaps an enlightened state is one of exhaustion. Finally I reached Level 6. What? Barricades blocked the last stairway? The last levels were off limits because of an earthquake? No touching a Buddha? No lightening bolt? Enlightenment was closed for renovation? I was trapped in a Swedish film where truth is elusive, and a state of grace is never attained. I headed straight down the stone stairs and back to the hotel to sulk over an unenlightened lunch.
That is when I spotted him, sitting there at the large round table in his flowing orange robe, with his entourage doting on him like golden retrievers. I was impressed with his outfit. The heavy silk hung in waves that lapped around his legs and chest. I smiled and apologized for the interruption, and asked for his photograph. He was as close to holy as I would get to that day.  I was told that he was a monk from Thailand. He had come to Borobudur on a pilgrimage. He sat Buddha-like on the dining room chair and forced a smile for me. I explained to him my frustration at being barred from touching one of the illusive Buddhas at the top of the shrine, and therefore barred from enlightenment.  He nodded once, like someone who had no idea what I was talking about. I then posed the question: If you touch a monk, is it the same thing as touching a Buddha? I wanted clarification about his faith.
That’s when I did the unthinkable. I touched him. With the impeccable timing of a batta bing, when my question was finished and the word Buddha had leapt from my lips, I grabbed his leg just above the kneecap. He reacted like I had crammed a live electrical cord in his mouth, or like a python had just crawled up his legs beneath that orange robe. He recoiled as shock waves radiated across the miles of silk that enveloped his body. His companions gasped audibly. What? What? I asked. You can’t do that, they cried! Why? What have I done? I noticed that the poor man had practically climbed up upon his seat, knees to his chest with a look of fright plastered on his previously stoic face. You can’t touch a monk, they chimed in unison like a Greek chorus. Why not? I asked. He’s chaste. He’s never touched a woman! Oh shit, I said. I didn’t know. There isn’t a sign that says you can’t touch a monk! Everyone stared as if Satan was speaking. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you are going to have to get sterilized, or start at level one again? I was desperately trying to break the tension, but no one laughed.
What kind of faith would allow you to get bent out of shape if someone touched your robe? I hadn’t touched his skin. There was no intimacy in our brief contact.  I could have grabbed his wrist, or hand, or interlaced my fingers with his, a much more intimate act. Instead, I grabbed his robe and the thigh beneath with the impersonal confidence of a corporate handshake. Later, my Thai girlfriend explained to me that women in Thailand move to the opposite side of the street when a monk walks by, in order to prevent an accidental touching.  Apparently, everyone but me knows that you don’t touch a monk. What did he expect, traveling to a foreign country, going out in public where, god forbid, women might be found? He should have stayed in his monastery, and I know he was thinking the same thing. Later, when I saw him in the hallway of the hotel, he pressed himself against the walls to give me the widest birth, terror tight across his face. In his mind, I was Satan, hounding him again. His hands spayed out like the crucified Christ, rather, a crucified Buddha, as he held his breath, and I passed. This was ridiculous. When it comes to tolerance and faith, this is where the line must be drawn. Absurdity must not be tolerated. So I touched his orange robe. I didn’t blow up his Zendo. I didn’t defile his monastery. For him think of me as Satan was completely absurd.
I am not arguing that Faith in itself is dangerous. I have seen the benefits of faith, and the mountains it can move. In the developing countries, schools are built, water systems are installed, and health care systems established by people with faith. In Africa, I have watched the faithful in Burundi, one of the poorest countries of the world, work miracles, feeding, educating, and loving the people who struggle through daily life. Yes, faith can move mountains.  However, when the details of faith become absurd, and such absurdity is tolerated, it becomes as dangerous as fondling a lit stick of dynamite, or possibly as dangerous as sticking something explosive in your underpants when boarding an airliner.
Six months before my trip to Borobudur, I had experienced another intolerably absurd religious situation, again in Indonesia. I was living there for a short while to determine if I could move to the Island of Bali, to be one of the expats that reside in harmony with nature and the local Hindu culture. I had rented a Balinese-styled villa for quite a lot of money in hopes that friends would join me on my exotic adventure. No one came. I was alone, except for the rats.
A Balinese home means that there are no walls, and therefore no barriers to the outdoors. Man, or in this case, woman, lives in happy balance with any island animal that chooses to wander in from garden, including the deadly green viper that hung from my mirror, the rubbery toads that sat laughing at night on my toilet seat, and the bats that swooped down from the lamppost outside my door. Nestled beside a huge lotus pond, the living room of my villa was a freeway for super-sized vermin, and I do not exaggerate.
The rats were as large as house cats. They were dark furry brown and had little interest in me, spending their days scurrying from garden to pond via my living room. But they knew I hated them. Occasionally, they would pause, tilt their heads toward me and sneer, which hinted that yes, they would be back in the darkness of night, yes, to torture me. Despite this, I put on a brave front. I would sit on my sofa during the day and say in a clam voice, Shoo Rat. But the night was different. In the night, I was afraid. My faith that tomorrow would be a better day had dissolved into fear. I wasn’t sure that I would live to see a tomorrow. Rats might eat me before the morning ever arrived. At night, as a sign of my desperation, I resorted to prayer. I prayed fervently for salvation. While I listened to the rats jump, and dance, and cavort, and have sex, in the ceiling above my head, I cowered under the mosquito-netting, calling upon God to make sure they didn’t fall through the dry wall and land in my bed. Upon discovering that I had lived through the darkness, my faith returned in the morning. I had slept through the night, thanks to God’s help, and my sleeping pills.
My tolerance for a culture, whose tolerance of animals would put PETA to shame, ended the day I saw two especially large rats with their fat pink tails sitting on my kitchen countertop. Now I have studied the Middle Ages. I know all about the plague. One third of the population of Europe died because of it. When I saw those enormous disease-transmitting rodents, rubbing their asses across the counter where my breakfast was prepared, I freaked out. My calm, Shoo Rat, morphed into a loud, Jesus. I had called upon the lord again. My faith in logic, told me that I would fall from Bubonic Plague, and it would be soon, if I did not purge my kitchen from those devil creatures. I told Ketut, the Hindu housekeeper, in no uncertain terms, that I would be moving out if something weren’t done immediately.
The Indonesian people on Bali are some of the loveliest, most caring, happy individuals one could meet. It’s all about karma. Their faith in knowing that a good life now will guarantee a better one the next time around, keeps them happy. At that moment, I had made Ketut unhappy, because I was unhappy, thus placing her in an un-Balinese state of mind. She disappeared up the rock path that lead from my villa past the cinnamon tree to the road, and returned a while later with a large flat basket on her head. She placed the basket on the ground and began removing banana leaves that had been folded into palm-sized trays, each of which held colorful flowers and a few tablespoons of fresh, fragrant rice. They were placed on the outside steps to the kitchen, on the counter and table, on the wall around the lotus pond, and on the floor of the living room. These were offerings to appease the evil spirits, offerings to keep the rats away.
Offerings? Hell, they were palm placemats holding rat chow. I wanted to know, where was the rat poison? Where were the glue strips? Where was the dynamite? Ok, dynamite might have been extreme, but I was done with the rats. I decided that I could not live in a place where religious absurdity put me at risk for the plague. Upon reflection, I did change my mind. I realized that I could live in lovely Bali with a pellet gun, screening, and a container ship full of rat poison.
That’s when the lightning bolt struck me. What had happened to my let live philosophy? Where was my tolerant and liberal self? My personal convictions had dissolved into judgmental intolerance. I knew that faith, practiced to rigid and intolerant extremes, was as perilous like bombs in sneakers, or dynamite strapped to a little child’s chest, the stuff that fuels wars. It had never occurred to me that my passing judgment on a Buddhist monk’s reaction to my touch, or a Hindu woman’s world view of rats, was a level or two, or a staircase or two, away from that same explosively dangerous intolerance.
I have thought about the day that Ketut made offerings to the gods on my behalf, to keep me safe, and more importantly, to keep me happy, and in harmony with the world around me, which included the rats. I had forgotten an essential aspect of my being, that I am a tolerant person. I had joked about the faith of others. Ketut had her methods to live out her faith. I had mine. There was no reason that we could not both coexist with each other, as well as rodents.
Now when I visit a Hindu culture, I step over the scented offerings of incense, rice, and flowers that sprinkle the sidewalks like New Years confetti, showing my respect for the local religious practices.  When I encounter a Buddhist monk, who walks in prayer down a street or through an airport, I show respect for a holy man who has spent his life in meditation, by stepping aside to let him pass. And recently, when I visited the third largest mosque in the world in Jakarta, I placed a silk Kimono over my clothing in order to cover my legs and arms, and I watched with respect as women, covered from head to toe in silk berkas, worshiped on the enormous prayer floor.
Man has searched for meaning in life from the time his brain evolved to allow for self-awareness. He has looked for the other more, through his religion, poetry, and fiction, pondering what lies beyond his death, if anything. If intolerance to each other’s faith is as scary as holding a stick of lit dynamite in our hands, then I will not hold on to dynamite.
One Fourth of July on an unregulated beach in Washington State, my son was handed a M80 that I knew had the power to blow up Mount Rushmore. Prior to this particular national celebration, my children had handled only sparklers. I was afraid that anything more powerful, for fear that it would blast off their fingers. That day on the beach resembled a scene from the movie, Apocalypse Now, as mortars of illegal fireworks rained down upon our heads. When my son held out that quarter stick of explosives in his palm, I said, Get rid of it. His father said, I’ll light it. He lit the green fuse. Throw it in the ocean, I yelled. My son tossed the mini dynamite into the waves from which, after a few moments, a large mushroom cloud of water rose like a reminder of Nagasaki. Holy shit, we all said in unison.
While I watched the water, horrific memories flooded over me from the 1950’s, where bomb shelters and mushroom clouds were the stuff of an elementary school child’s consciousness. I could hear the Saturday sirens scream over the morning cartoon programs, an exercise for when those warning sounds would be needed. Schwinn bicycles with playing cards clipped to the spokes with clothes pins, Ginny Dolls, The Howdy Doody Show, mouse ears, and ducking for cover under school desks when the sirens blasted, these were all part of my memories, wrapped together with that mushroom cloud like imaginary palm leaf offerings to the past.
A mushroom cloud is a terrible, terrible image. If faith, and intolerance, and mushroom clouds can be thought of together, then we need to remind ourselves to be cautious, and to never, ever, light the fuse.

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