Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hearing, Speaking and Seeing

Above is the familiar image of the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys. These monkeys are etched above the stable of the Sacred White Horse at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Shrines are Shinto in origin. Shintos have always believed that horses belong to the gods and that monkeys are protective spirits. So the author of this beautiful carving obviously wanted to make sure that the gods' prized possession was carefully guarded. Even though this shrine was built in the 1600s, a Sacred White Horse still resides in the stable--a gift from New Zealand. I absolutely love how tradition lives here in Japan.

Toshogu shrine, although Shinto in origin, seamlessly melds both Shinto and Buddhist influences. Shintoism is the indigenous religion of the Japanese people. It is not a "written" religion with a sacred text, but rather a conglomeration of beliefs based on societal rules. Ancestral worship and a strong abhorrence of death are its chief characteristics. Buddhism came from India, via China and the Korean Peninsula. Buddhists view death as a natural part of life that must be shed along with other earthly bonds to achieve nirvana. The samurai developed Zen Buddhism, the uniquely Japanese sect of Buddhism, as their strict ethical code, religion and way of life. By the time Buddhism reached Japan, its sacred texts had been widely dispersed and it was a truly "organized" religion. It became a national religion as the shoguns wrestled power away from the traditionally Shinto Emperor.

Somehow, someway, though, these two very distinct and oftentimes oppositional belief systems became intertwined. They exist and have always existed completely at peace with one another in this country. Sometimes it is very difficult for an outsider to recognize where one ends and the other begins in their influence on the Japanese spirit and culture. Without forcing supremacy of one over the other, the Japanese have found a way to take the best of both religions and weave their teachings into their everyday existence. It's amazing.

I suppose all this came to my mind recently because I have been thinking of my own faith quite a bit. It has been a humbling week. Mostly because I have realized the teachings I thought were woven into my framework have come loose a bit.

Those of you who know me well, know how important religion is in my life. I am endlessly fascinated by what people believe (or don't) and why they believe it (or not). I absolutely love hearing what folks have to say about how faith influences their life or doesn't.To investigate the mystery of faith, I enjoy searching out the "clues" and following these spiritual footprints of faith back to their cultural sources. The grand impressions left by the national culture are usually obvious, but the more delicate and faint lines, the ones left behind by the personal-familial culture are ultimately more engaging. As with any relationship, one's relationship or lack thereof with God is complex. And complexity is compelling. Scary sometimes, but compelling. So, oftentimes when I go out into the world, I am on an awkward quest to try and "understand" this beautiful chaos called humanity.

Unfortunately, I have an Achilles heel that really lays me up sometimes. I just absolutely hate spiritual arrogance. You know, the My God is Better Than Your God mentality that pervades cultures. I find that the American culture is especially prone to this. As a self-professed "Christian Nation", we oftentimes try and make sense of the chaos by imposing our particular world view, our order, on it. Some believe that this order is best achieved by a literal approach. Frankly, I don't have a problem with someone being a Biblical Literalist. If somebody finds comfort in believing that the Bible was telepathically faxed to Mankind and then copied and pasted into the Greatest Word Document Ever (with no editing), more power to them. It's not provable, but that's what faith is about. It's belief in the unprovable.

So when I hear someone state as fact that which is unprovable, it literally drives me crazy. When I hear the statement from a girlfriend that it's "so sad that the poor Buddhists will never know what it's like to spend Eternity with the Lord" or when a person uses scripture as a weapon to intimidate others into believing what he believes, I can't think straight. That type of arrogance MAKES ME NUTS. Using fear (whether subtle or overt) to bully others into being "saved" is so contrary to what I know in my soul that I instantly get angry at the offense.

So to make a long story short(er), I got in a theological, ahem, "discussion" with one of these folk on an online forum discussing a recent bestselling work of fiction. He felt the book was "demonic" because it didn't follow the Bible to the letter. Trying to convince another person on the site that his interpretation was The Truth, he pulled out all the Biblical scripture standards as "proof" of his superior view. I called him on his arrogance. He responded that I didn't love God's word. I called him a Bible Bully. He assured me that I would perish in the Lakes of Fire. I told him I wasn't scared of him and his lakes of fire--my relationship with God was based on love and compassion. Other people chimed in and staked their ground.

But then, he said something that stopped me in my tracks. A total stranger told me that he knew he had The Truth on his side because he had been "kicked out" of his family for his views. I got the distinct impression that even though he saw himself as a modern day Christian martyr, he hadn't chosen to leave his family. Rather, his family left him.

Kicked out of his family because of what he believed.

Shunned by those who should love you most in this world, because of your relationship to God. Can you imagine? In an instant, everything I held dear about my own demented but loving family rushed over me. And I could imagine the absence of that love...and it broke my heart.

Of course he was a bully. Because he had been bullied. And my girlfriend, the one who felt sorry for the "poor Buddhists", she broke our friendship because my beliefs "deeply disturbed" her and she felt I wasn't the Christian I ought to be. But she had been through hell this past year and was only trying to define her own chaotic world, a world that had lost all its definable borders. I believe now that it was a matter of necessity for her to define her world the best she could so the chaos wouldn't overtake it again, so she could be comforted in a time of trouble.

Maybe it's not the Chaos we should fear, though, but our attempts to order it at all costs...Usually I love getting lost in the chaos, it's one of the reasons I enjoy traveling so much. I enjoy witnessing how my understanding of the world is pretty small. Traveling has a way of rearranging a personal sense of order: On a small scale, I have eaten rice and fish for breakfast. On The Grand Scale, I am seeing how two "opposed" religions are united in their love of what is good...but distinctly different in their approach of how to live out this goodness in this world.

Which brings us back to the monkeys. This image got me to thinking. Most of the time, I can abstain from hearing, speaking and seeing Evil. It's difficult, but as far as these three senses go, I can control them. Yes, not always successfully, but at least somewhat consistently. But what about that pride, that anger that rises up when I think my own beliefs and sense of order are being assailed? What about that hypocrisy that dwells in my heart? I define my relationship with God by love and compassion and an absence of fear--the Order in the Chaos. Yet, I still walk down that road of pride and anger all the time, without even THINKING about it. With strangers or loved ones, I still seek out what is different rather than what is unifying.

Perhaps the creator of these monkeys was as blind as I am. Perhaps there should have been, in fact should be, a fourth monkey, carefully covering his heart:

Feel No Evil.

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