Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Measure of a Religion

As far as religion goes, I was reared in the Society of Friends (Quakers) and I have throughout my life attended various Quaker Meetings, in Albuquerque, Monteverde, Costa Rica, Portland, and now I have recently begun attending again the Green Country Friends Meeting here in Tulsa. I consider myself Quaker in the way a person whose parents arrived in this country from Italy must consider her/himself Italian. It is my heritage, however, I do not consider myself Christian. That may be a contradiction that my mother and others who practice the Christian religion cannot reconcile, but it makes perfect sense to me. Long ago I decided that one of the best ways to evaluate a religion is to observe those who practice the religion and watch and see how their belief system manifests itself in their lives. Frankly, I have not been very impressed by the behavior of most who call themselves Christian. They strike me as a tremendously judgmental and intolerant lot and quite prone to war and violence although they ofter refer to their savior as the "Prince of Peace."

This week I had two occasions to reflect on religion. On Wednesday evening I went to see Religulous, Bill Maher's cynical and comedic take on the three great religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Maher's premise, in a nutshell, is that is very difficult (in his case, impossible) for someone to suspend his/her rational thought and believe in such concepts as the virgin birth of Christ, the notion that Adam and Eve were cavorting with dinosaurs, or that scientists the world over are wrong about the age of the earth and a little concept called "evolution." Maher points out the that "faith" by its very definition suggests that there are things, ideas, and beings out there that are not verifiable, but must be accepted as fact if one is to consider her/himself a true believer. That is a suspension of reality as we experience it that both Bill Maher and I are not willing to make.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche

In contrast to the thoughts I had after watching Religulous, I had a very different experience on Thursday evening. That night I attended a lecture given by the Ven. Ringu Tulku Rinpoche - a Tibetan Buddhist monk and teacher whose talk was entitled "Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness." I was struck immediately by the very realistic belief system that the monk began describing. He talked about how we can change our outlook and ourselves to be more in the present and to show more compassion to others. There was nothing in the monk's lecture that suggested I should suspend my rational thought and accept on blind faith a story that seemed incomprehensible to me. Rather it was just the opposite - the Rinpoche discussed how important is was for a practitioner of Buddhism to become more aware of her/his surroundings, of the reality of which we are a part, and to not deny reality for some notion of an unfathomable faith in a higher power.

In 1987 I traveled to Tibet, and one of my most enduring memories of that trip is the true kindness and generosity of the Tibetan people. The Tibetan people, in spite of their horrible treatment at the hands of their Chinese occupiers, were gracious and friendly to me, an obvious outsider. They welcomed me to join their pilgrimages and shared the chang and tsampa that they had with me, and they were so very appreciative of the photos of their revered leader, the Dalai Lama, that I had brought along to distribute as I traveled through their impressive land.

If a religion can indeed be measured by those who practice it, I must surely take my hat off to the people of Tibet and their particular form of Buddhism. They are so peaceful in the face of such overwhelming strife and violence that the Chinese have perpetrated on them. The Dalai Lama, their spiritual and political leader, to this day counsels non-violent responses to all wrong-doing, a remarkable response when one realizes the extent of injury and violence that has been done to the Tibetan people. Indeed, if John McPalin ends up stealing the election this November I have a notion that I should go to Dharamasala, India (the home-in-excile of the Dalai Lama) and take up Tibetan Buddhism. Om-mani-padme-huum...

1 comment:

BobR said...

I don't know if you were aware that the Dalai Lama set up a partnership with Emory University here in Atlanta: http://tibet.emory.edu/

He was here last year and will likely be back for another visit (I thought I remembered hearing that he was going to be coming back once a year, but that doesn't seem to be the case). There WILL be a "Tibet Week" next March if you're interested: http://tibet.emory.edu/news/index.html#week09 ; you have a free place to stay with us...

If you want to continue your spiritual journey here in Atlanta, the largest Hindu temple in the U.S. is in a suburb of Atlanta: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BAPS_Shri_Swaminarayan_Mandir_Atlanta

It's absolutely beautiful...