A few years ago a close friend of mine, Sankhi, converted from Buddhism to Christianity. It was a major issue for me. As a Buddhist, it didn’t make logical sense that a person would go from believing that your fate lies in your own hands, to handing off that responsibility to a higher power. How do you start believing midway through your life, that there is a God, when your whole life you learned that there wasn’t a “Saviour”? How do you start believing that your life, your soul and consequences of your actions are no longer your responsibility?
My first reaction was to laugh, until I realized how serious she was. She is one of my closest friends, and I knew I would never let religion stand in the way of our relationship. Then in my usual nonchalance I accepted it and didn’t take a moment to reconcile her conversion within myself. Unbeknownst to me it lingered in my unconscious and I found myself turning away from religious debates. Something fundamental within me (my religion) had been shaken, but in my resolute decision to avoid conflict I walked away from it.
Recently I sat with a devout Christian friend of mine. Being the oldest friend I have, what I say and how I say it to Nam doesn’t matter. Because no matter what we say to each other doesn’t affect our friendship. I can be racist, prejudiced, and arrogant in my arguments and there will be no lasting effect on “us.” May be time, or experiences shared makes this relationship so stable, whatever it is we started talking about God. For six hours we talked, and the more we talked the more I understood. I realized that Sankhi’s conversion didn’t expose a hole in my religion, but an empty space within HER that was then filled with the “Spirit of God” as it were.
Nam wants to be a Christian leader, but the bible expressly forbids women speaking in church. I asked how she reconciles this within herself. That her God, her Book that she goes to for clarity and guidance in all things in her life, is denying her the one thing she wants to do. How can you follow a religion, how can you keep believing when God says no to your ultimate happiness? But then she explained that she believes one day God will help her understand, and that she will be reconciled with this fact. And THAT is her Faith- knowing that even though she doesn’t understand now she will eventually. I had never understood Faith with such clarity before.
We talked about Religion as an institution, and religion as a set of guidelines each individual lives by. Of course there are the religious institutions, like Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam (to name a few) with their places of worship, and rituals and prayers. For Namali church is a place to share and relate, discuss and argue the word of God; the other institutional and ritualistic pieces of being a Christian are less important than her relationship with God.
“As for institutionalized Christianity, it means nothing to me without my relationship with God. I go to church (as a building, place, institution) because I recognize that it is an environment that is good for building, encouraging and even beginning this relationship. But The Church as an entity is by biblical definition, any gathering of believers, that is, the body of Christ. So when Macy, Kevin, Ben and I hang out, we are the church. Even when we are alone, we are the church. In this sense “the Christian institution” is an oxymoron.”
I agreed and followed that if you take my Buddhism in an institutional sense, I may not appear to be a “good” Buddhist.
In fact I am often disgusted by the corruption of the institutional Buddhism, by radicals like Bodhu Bala Sena who stand in complete and utter opposition to the very essence of what Buddhism is. These people, these monks have taken the ethereal desire-less TRUTH that is Buddhism and corrupted it with petty human emotions like jealousy and possession. They have poisoned the Buddhist institution that is meant to be a platform of peace and friendship to ALL living creatures. The words “Bala” meaning power and “Sena” meaning army are so completely incongruous with what Buddhism is I can’t believe it is able to thrive- especially in a country that is “supposedly” a “Buddhist Nation.” But of course like in any situation, ignorance breeds radicalism. Fucking BBS.
Anyhow, if you take the way I live my life and the way I make decisions I believe I’m a devout and world-class Buddhist.
My religion doesn’t come from a book, a temple. My religion is my Thaththa (Father). When I am faced with conflict or frustration or dissolution I will turn to my Tha who is then able to explain using the teachings of Lord Buddha and bring me clarity on my own close mindedness, or the way I may be viewing a situation one dimensionally. And then like a light turning on I am free of these trifling human emotions (more like chains) and I am able to see from the outside. Then there is peace.
There is one monk in the whole island of Sri Lanka (and perhaps in the world) who I look to for similar guidance and clarity. Rev. Dhammagawesi is the future of Buddhism; in Sri Lanka, and hopefully in the world. He believes in the timeless quality of Buddhism, and that the continuation of the religion depends on its ability to reach the youth on a level they understand. His progressive vision coupled by his deep and educated understanding of Buddhism makes him an unparalleled source of Buddhism for me. Again, any questions I have, any doubts he will answer to my satisfaction and there is peace within me.
This being said at the age of 25 I have found stability, empathy and a self-awareness that makes it virtually impossible for me to be fazed by life. Every situation is dealt with the deepest understanding of self, and others; leading to a contented life of joy and giving. I know many people struggle to get to this place, and I feel fortunate to have the teachers (in the form of my Tha, Sadhu, friends and family) in my life that helped me achieve this level of consciousness. Buddhism is the key to ultimate peace and happiness. It is the key to living life to its greatest extents. Buddhism opens the mind to greater possibilities, and through the insignificance of the individual clears the path for harmony with all living creatures. Buddhism is not bound within the “institutional religion” it is known by; in fact it is propagated through the good deeds of all living things. Buddhism is universal, all encompassing, all accepting, enlightenment.
I have never spoken of my religion so openly. I never tell people of this peace, or this understanding I have gained unless expressly asked. I have never evangelized the peace I have found in Buddhism, for I understand that each person has their own peace. Namali and Sankhi found it in Christianity. My other friends have found it in Islam, or Hinduism. Still others may have found it in a Life Coaching program or seminar. And what I believe above all else is, no matter how you have found your peace; it is your own path you have taken to get to your peace.
So here lies my aversion to evangelism.
My whole life I have had people tell me, I should read the bible, I will go to hell unless I convert, I should come to a meeting to learn the “Truth.” When I begin a conversation with a stranger, about his dog, or his city and he ends up by telling me he wants to “save my soul” or “share the Truth” or “illuminate my life” I get frustrated. Why is it that everyone believes their “way” is superior? Namali clarified that in Christianity evangelism is about “Sharing the good news,” but institutional Christianity has defined evangelism as a necessary act to be a “Good Christian.”
But my problem isn’t with Christianity. If someone offers me a bible, I would decline it, but if someone offers me a Quran I would be happy to accept it. This does not stem from some lack of respect for Christianity. Namali too found that she would more likely accept a Quran than a Jathaka book (stories of Lord Buddha’s previous lives.) We discovered that this is because we are overexposed to Christianity and Buddhism, while Islam still holds a level of mystery that appeals to us. No, our open mindedness about religion isn’t selective.
However, I find I am not open to evangelism. Be it religion, or secular. If you are trying to show me “your way” of finding peace in this life, I am not open to it.
This discovery about me created a whole lot of confusion, frustration, and disharmony within myself. I like to believe I am open-minded, and tolerant of all beings and all belief systems. Then why was I so repellant to people sharing their religion and their “way” with me? I wondered if it was some diffidence in my own beliefs. Upon further examination I KNEW it was not that.
If anything I was so very confident in my belief system, that it was bordering on arrogance. I was so very stoic in my beliefs that I was now not open to hearing about someone else’s “Truth.” This was a problem to me (to my idea of who I am.) And it came into fruition when a close friend invited me to an introduction to a life coaching program she took, and believed in. I was so repelled by this invitation. The feeling within me was not unlike if someone had invited me to convert.
The conflict wreaked havoc in me. My mind was abuzz and even physiologically I was uncomfortable. I struggled with how to respond to my friend without coming across as condescending or superior. I struggled with how to say no, and how to explain why. That’s when I realized I didn’t know why I was saying no.
After replying that I would be happy to attend (going against my gut instinct) I began that uncomfortable journey into myself to find out what is my aversion to evangelism.
This is what I found:
I am not arrogant. I am not a bigot. I am not close minded. (Close minded looks like the Dad in Footloose to me.) I am not superior. I am not intolerant.
It’s just that:
I don’t want your truth, because I have my own.
I don’t want you to force me to hear your truth, because YOU think I need to.
I don’t force you to listen to my Truth, so offer me the same respect.
I will listen to your invitation. But please don’t be disappointed if I don’t join your cause.
When you see me I hope you don’t see a lost soul. I may not wear my Truth like a banner; but if you know me, you know I have peace.
My own peace. Let it be.