I had just arrived in Bodhgaya, in many ways the destination I had been aiming towards for several years, the city that has grown around the site where Gautama Buddha sat under the famous fig tree and attained enlightenment. The final leg of the journey to this out if it place had been long and exhausting. I had made the trip with two fellow pilgrims I had met in Varanasi, the closest major town, and a driver we had hired, and together we had suffered the day long bone-rattling drive over the rubble fields that passed for highways in that crumbling country. Of the three of us pilgrims, only I had arrived in Bodhgaya fully intact, my two fellow travelers having to retreat immediately to their guest rooms upon arrival, which left me free to explore the city alone.
It was dark as I headed out in to the dimly lit streets with only a vague notion of the direction I was headed. Indian cities of this size are amazing places to wander around in, full of activity, but small enough to be able to keep track of where you are going and most importantly, how to get back again. So I began to just follow my curiosity, towards the light, and energy, and, was that…music? Yes it was, so I turned down a side street and sought the source of what was a growing beat that as I continued walking towards grew into a screeching, chaotic, swirling, ocean of sound. Finally I turned one final corner and there it was, in the middle of this otherwise quiet and dark night, a full adult marching band of some sort, but attired like I could not believe. Many of the musicians had long neon colored LED lights sewn into their clothing, and wore giant towering hats that were equally bedazzled with pulsing lights of all colors and kinds. It was a moving party of sight and sound unlike any I had ever seen, and it was coming right at me. In fact, without hesitation it began to move around me and the other people in the street, literally swallowing and incorporating us immediately and completely into their party.
And so, without much choice, I let it take me. I became one with the joyful chaos, found my rhythm and joined in the dance. For me, this kind of spontaneous and unexpected journey into embodied and ecstatic worship is about as good as it gets. I can only imagine the blissed out look on my face as I joined in the festivities. Eventually I found myself moving towards the rear of the procession and it was then that I realized I was in the middle of a wedding party as their were the bride and groom, unmistakable in their wedding garments and being carried in a special cabin on the shoulders of the marchers, also exquisitely adorned with lights and sirens and spinning wheels.
But something was not right. In the middle of this incredible experience of unbridled fun and pleasure, the bride and groom looked absolutely miserable. Subtract everything going on around them and their facial expressions would have led you to believe they were on their way to a funeral rather than their wedding. And then it occurred to me. For them, perhaps it was like a funeral. Clearly they had been put in an arranged marriage that they were not happy with. So all of this pomp and circumstance was really just papering over their misery. Upon having this realization, the joy I had felt just moments before dissolved into sadness, and I made my way home.
The next afternoon I was telling the story to my guide at the Mahabodhi Temple complex, not far from where the unreal events of the night before had unfolded, and as I came to my grand conclusion, the revelation of the crestfallen bride and groom on their funeral march to their vows, it was now my guide that was looking upset.
“My friend, I think you are wrong,” he said to me with a slight hint of impatience. “Those two you saw, they were not upset, at least not how you think. You think arranged marriage means we marry a stranger? No, that is not how it happens. We choose from someone our family approves of, but we choose.”
“OK,” I replied, “that is good to hear, but how can you be so sure that the couple I saw last night was not sad to being getting married? You should have seen the looks on their faces.” I said with a certainty fueled with sudden doubt.
“No my friend,” he replied, now with a bit of a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “they were not sad or mad, they were hungry!” he declared, now openly chuckling at me a bit. “You see here in our town, and in much of India, the way we practice the marriage ritual, the bride and groom must fast for several days before the wedding. So I assure you, all those two were feeling when you saw them was intense hunger.”
For me, this story sums up both my experience traveling in mysterious India, which will never fully make sense to my western eyes and ears, but also to the intense importance of truly engaged interfaith experiences. As I am fond of saying, we tend to see the world based on who we are, rather than for what it actually is, and this is most true in unfamiliar situations, but we can break out of this prison of our assumptions, with some practice.
When our mind needs to interpret new information it applies and compares it to old information to find a category to put it in, which means if it is truly new information, our internal process will fail. We don’t like that feeling, so instead we take that new information and we jam it into whatever hole we think it is closest to and jump on it until it squeezes in there, and voila, we make an assumption that is almost always completely wrong. I saw two people in the middle of a joyous frenzy, heading off to what I think of as a wonderfully happy occasion, looking sad. Since this juxtaposition didn’t make sense to me, I jammed it into the little bit of knowledge I had, and put it all together with an assumption: people in India have arranged marriages, I don’t like when people choose things for me, so that must be why these two people are upset. Which may have served me well in interpreting the situation at a wedding in San Francisco, but not so much in India.
When we look at the world, we judge it based on what we already know, and the truth is, we really don’t know very much. I don’t care who you are, how many books you’ve read, how many countries you’ve traveled to, degrees you have earned, this world is simply too big and complicated for anyone to hold and understand it all. And what means one thing to someone living in Cairo, or Quito, might mean something completely different to someone whose entire life has played out in Florence or Fremont. Cultural markers, societal expectations, class structure, it all goes in to how we see the world, and the best we can hope for is to get little glimpses of other people’s realities, like I did that night in Bodhgaya, that remind us of how little we know and how complex the world truly is. It is humbling, but I also believe it is the best kind of work for spiritual growth.
When I was younger, I imagined spiritual growth meant gaining wisdom through study, and while I still believe that reading other people’s reports from their spiritual adventures is useful to our own, I now believe that the best spiritual growth comes from our discomfort, not study. As I said, what our brain naturally wants to do when we encounter new information is to fit it into the worldview it already operates under. But to grow spiritually we must be willing to continually expand, alter and transform the very way we see the world, and that is not comfortable. Being spiritually evolved, it turns out, doesn’t mean being wise, it means being intellectually and emotionally nimble. And to do this, we need to encounter people who believe, think, live and love differently than we do. Which is hard to do.
And so I want to give you a few tips, that I have been taught myself, to use when I am suddenly face-to-face with another culture, religion or thought system and am disoriented and unsure. So to begin with, rather than moving quickly and anxiously into assumption as I have already illustrated, consider first, slowing down a little bit. That is it, that is the big old tip number one, just slow down and take some breaths.
The truth is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being curious about differences, it’s about how we go about rushing carelessly into exploring them that we get ourselves into trouble. So, after you have slowed down a little bit, taken a few breaths and not moved on to assumption, do some listening and observing. That is number two; just listen, and look around for a little bit. Often times when we are nervous we start talking. Resist that urge and rather try to stay quiet and take in your surroundings.
And of course, in these moments of discovery, we think that questions are our best tool (where are you from, what is it like there, etc?), but in reality asking someone who you perceive as different from you questions about their life when you are a complete stranger to them does not come across as loving and welcoming, but rather as threatening and the questions are by necessity loaded with assumptions that are almost always largely inaccurate. And once those stereotypes have entered the dialogue, it is very hard to get back to trust. And that is the goal. To create a safe place of shared meaning with someone. And so, rather than questions, the best thing you can do, after you have first slowed down, and then second listened and observed for awhile, is to share something about yourself. That is tip number three, DON’T ask a question, say something about you: “Hello, my name is Jeremy Nickel and I am from a suburb of Boston called Newton. I was raised Unitarian Universalist, but almost everyone in my town was either Catholic or Jewish, so I always felt like an outsider.”
Now, I have taken the risk, shared something of myself, and made space for someone, should they feel like doing it, to share something about who they are. Now be quiet again, and see what happens.
Shared meaning needs to be discovered, negotiated, and created. It cannot be assumed, and it takes time. And, there happens to be an event called Interfaith Harmony Day that is coming up next Saturday, February 4, right here in Fremont at Niles Discovery Church, that is a perfect place to go and try out exactly what I am talking about. In fact that is its very purpose.
About a decade ago the United Nations called on every city in the world to hold an interfaith harmony week the first week of February every year, to promote understanding between people and build bridges across difference. Here in the Tri-Cities, the Interfaith Council that I am a part of answered this call for the first time four years ago with the creation of our Interfaith Harmony day celebration.
And so I hope you can join myself, Rev. Barbara Meyers and many other members and friends of Mission Peak UU at this event. All the info you should need to find it is in this week’s Week on the Peak email, and will be repeated again in this coming weeks edition.
For the first hour of the event there will be booths from many of the different faith homes in the Fremont, Union City and Newark area. Each booth will be staffed with both lay and professional members of the religion or group, as well as being adorned with artifacts from their worship homes and spiritual practices. For example, our booth will have our chalice that we light every Sunday, our hymnals, one of our caring quilts from our pastoral care team and several other pieces.
And the second hour is where those tools I just talked about, of slowing down, listening, and telling our own story, will come in handy. In the second hour we will all join small groups that will intentionally be made up of a diverse set of the attendees for a conversation around a few topics. It is an opportunity to really get to know some new people and to hear what life looks like to them. A rare and valuable opportunity that I hope you will take advantage of if you can.
If you have come here to grow spiritually, don’t miss it. And remember to: slow down, listen, share. May it be so, amen.
Listen to sermon below: